KANSAS CITY — Republican candidates seeking to challenge Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon characterized him Saturday as a "spectator governor" who has transformed Missouri into one of the "least business-friendly states in the country."
Yet few of the roughly 1,000 Republicans gathered for Missouri Republican Party's annual state Lincoln Days conference heard the remarks from St. Louis businessman Dave Spence or Kansas City attorney Bill Randles. That's because the two declared gubernatorial candidates were held to a relatively low profile by party officials.
There was no gubernatorial debate. And the gubernatorial candidates had no speaking role at any of the weekend's big banquets. Instead, Spence and Randles got two or three minutes each to speak to the several dozen members of the Missouri Republican State Committee — and that's about as big as it got for them.
Spence wasn't complaining, but Randles was — claiming that the slim agenda was an attempt by party officials to prevent him from sharing the stage with the self-financed Spence, who has the support of some former Missouri Republican Party officials.
State Republican Party Executive Director Lloyd Smith said the conference agenda wasn't crafted with the intent of benefiting any particular gubernatorial candidate. He said the schedule merely was crunched for time and that Missouri's U.S. Senate contest took top billing because it is a critical race in the Republican quest to regain control of the chamber.
Both Spence and Randles are making their first run for public office and perhaps could have benefited from some more microphone time in front of the party faithful as they head toward an August primary. But Spence said he was satisfied speaking to smaller groups and shaking hands with individuals. Randles was relegated to doing likewise.
Given a chance, both sought to blame Nixon for several years of unemployment rates above 8 percent.
"He has not done anything for three years — he's been a spectator governor," said Spence, who stepped down recently from the St. Louis-based packaging companies he had run. "I've been a leader all my life."
Randles, who left Kansas City law firm Shook, Hardy & Bacon before launching a gubernatorial bid, said Missouri's economy was suffocating because of Nixon.
"He's reduced Missouri to the least business-friendly state in the country," Randles claimed.
To the contrary, Nixon has stressed that Missouri's economy is improving, noting that its unemployment is down from its peak above 9 percent, and the state's international exports are at record levels.
"These two candidates are obviously desperate for whatever attention they can get, but the reality is that Jay Nixon balances with the budget, keeps taxes low and protests the state's AAA credit rating," said state Democratic Party spokeswoman Caitlin Legacki.
Some Republicans at the conference said they hoped for another gubernatorial alternative. Republican state Auditor Tom Schweich has considered the race but steadfastly declined to comment during the weekend's activities about whether he would run for governor this year. While campaigning for auditor two years ago, Schweich pledged that he would serve his full four-year term.