ANALYSIS: St. Louis businessmen on Missouri ballot

Sunday, November 20, 2011 | 4:24 p.m. CST; updated 5:31 p.m. CST, Sunday, November 20, 2011

JEFFERSON CITY — Two St. Louis businessmen are seeking to jump from their boardrooms onto the ballot, launching bids as Republicans for the top Missouri offices on next year's ballot.

The most recent is Dave Spence, who officially joined the Missouri governor race Tuesday. After just a few days, Spence's candidacy pushed out Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder, who shelved his gubernatorial aspirations this past week and instead decided to seek a third term as lieutenant governor. Another St. Louis businessman, John Brunner, launched his candidacy for the U.S. Senate last month.

Missouri's duo of businessmen candidates could bring a new tweak to the campaigns for the top offices on next year's ballot. Over the past decade, none of Missouri's leading candidates have tried to make a leap from private business directly to a major elected post. Instead, the hopefuls have come from the state legislature and other statewide offices.

Now, two Republican candidates hope they can start a new model. Spence, 53, is the president and CEO of Alpha Packaging that makes plastic bottles for vitamins and personal care products and is the chairman of Legacy Packaging that is a pharmaceutical packaging firm. Brunner, 59, is the third generation partial owner of Vi-Jon that makes cosmetics and health care products such as hand sanitizer and describes himself as the chairman emeritus for the company.

Each businessman faces challenges in starting their political careers. Brunner is running in a competitive primary against U.S. Rep. Todd Akin and former Missouri Treasurer Sarah Steelman for the right to challenge Democratic U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill. Spence has a primary against lightly funded former Kansas City attorney Bill Randles and then would take on Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon, who swept into office four years ago.

Nonetheless, Brunner and Spence both can count on some advantages. Using a business career for a launching pad instead of past government service could prove a strong selling point in campaigns for Missouri governor and the U.S. Senate that are likely to be dominated by the economy and by proposals for improving it. Plus, private enterprise bona fides can be particularly potent when appealing to voters in a GOP primary.

Business success also means the candidates can have the wherewithal to contribute their own cash toward their political aspirations. That decreases some of the fundraising pressure for the businessmen who will need to compete in primaries or general elections against more experienced rivals who have developed a base of supporters over a career.

Both Spence and Brunner have said they are willing to contribute their own funds into campaign accounts.

On the flip side, politicking is a skill that can take some time to master. The campaign trail can be a thorny place even for experienced politicians, and the increased scrutiny in prominent races can magnify the risk and scope of mistakes.

Business candidates "bring the advantage of a new face, that is not tied into the status quo, which is held in extremely low esteem," said Dave Robertson, a political science professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. "The problem is that if you don't have experience in running for office, you are more likely to have oops moments."

In addition, the political benefits of running a business can become a lug when decisions made by a company creep into campaign fodder.

Vi-Jon announced in late October that it was laying off some employees, which prompted attention on Brunner — who no longer is active in the firm's daily operations but is a former chief executive for the company that was founded by his grandfather. Similarly, Spence has faced questions about his former position on the board of directors for a bank, whose holding company has announced it would stop making an annual dividend payment to the U.S. Treasury for money received under a federal bank bailout program.

The advent of Missouri's business candidacies come amid increasing turmoil in the national political climate and a desire by some voters for candidates new to the political arena. Business leaders in numerous states have sought to jump into public office.

Among the most famous has been Ross Perot, who ran for president in 1992 against Republican George H.W. Bush and Democrat Bill Clinton. In 2004, Colorado beer magnet Pete Coors ran as a Republican for an open U.S. Senate seat but lost.

Last year, Wisconsin plastics company president Ron Johnson beat a former congressman in a GOP primary and then knocked off three-term Democratic U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold. And in the Florida governor's race, Republican Rick Scott, the founder of a company that became the world's largest health care firm, beat the state's attorney general in a Republican primary and then defeated the state's chief financial officer in the general election.

The influx of business leaders as top candidates in Missouri's marquee races also could indicate that options for possible Republican candidates have thinned somewhat among the traditional stomping grounds. Although Republicans have controlled the legislature for the past decade, Democrats now hold two-thirds of the statewide offices.

Uncertainty in the political atmosphere, many voters' frustration with elected officials and a dearth of prominent Republican leaders looking to run for higher office has created an opportunity for business leaders this year.

"It's causing people to have an open mind in the case of running for office and in nominating people without much experience to these slots," Robertson said.

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