JEFFERSON CITY — Several financially successful men, previously unknown to most Missourians, are competing in a Republican gubernatorial primary for a shot at running the state.
Long shots? Perhaps.
But by tapping into their wealth to help finance their campaigns and capitalizing on voter concerns about the economy and incumbents, the Republican candidates remain hopeful that if they can just win the Aug. 7 GOP primary, they might be on their way to ousting Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon.
It will be a challenge. Nixon has 26 years of name recognition as a state senator, attorney general and governor. He has $7.6 million in the bank. And he has been courting independent and Republican voters by touting spending cuts, a balanced budget and a no-tolerance policy for tax hikes.
The GOP field has been led financially by Dave Spence, a suburban St. Louis businessman who has put almost $3 million into his campaign and traveled the state in an RV bearing a large image of his face. In one of his recent TV ads, Spence asserts: "We'll create the jobs Jay Nixon promised but didn't deliver."
Bill Randles, who quit his job at a Kansas City law firm four years ago, was the first to enter the GOP race. He's put almost 100,000 miles on his vehicles attending local party events and loaned his campaign about $50,000. Randles has begun sharpening his criticism of Spence, suggesting his rhetoric lacks substance.
Anti-abortion activist Fred Sauer was a surprise entrant. The founder of Orion Investment Co., Sauer said he has put about $350,000 into his campaign, enough to post billboards and run cable TV and radio ads. Sauer says he was motivated to run after the Republican-led legislature passed a new tax incentive for science and technology firms — an initiative he sued to block.
A fourth candidate in the race, John Weiler of Pevely, has not reported raising or spending any money.
Despite their efforts, the Republican gubernatorial candidates still have some persuading to do.
Roberta Pulliam acknowledges that she knows "very little" about them — even though she's on the Adair County Republican committee.
"Usually by this time, I've probably made up my mind for the primary, but it's kind of hard this year," said Pulliam, 75, a farmer in northern Missouri.
Spence, 54, of Ladue, believes he is the front-runner and has focused his campaign squarely on Nixon, ignoring Randles' jabs.
"My experience is heads and shoulders above anybody else I'm running against," Spence said. "I've actually run something."
Spence graduated from MU with a home economics degree, and not long after, he bought small plastic bottle manufacturer Alpha Packaging. He touts its transformation over a couple decades from 15 employees and annual sales of $350,000 to a firm with 800 employees and nearly $200 million in annual sales. Spence sold it in 2010 and stepped down as president and CEO late last year to run for governor.
Spence also served on the board of St. Louis-based Reliance Bancshares when it decided it couldn't repay $40 million from the federal government's Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP — a decision denounced by both Randles and Democrats.
Spence's economic platform seeks to make Missouri a "right-to-work" state, where union dues cannot be a condition of employment. He backs more limits on liability lawsuits, supports workers' compensation changes and vows to repeal "burdensome regulations." Spence also pledges to "take personal charge" of the Missouri Department of Economic Development, which he says has lacked steady leadership under Nixon.
"I will be our state's number one salesman," Spence said.
Randles, 49, of North Kansas City, also wants to make Missouri a "right-to-work" state. But some of his proposals would go further than Spence's.
He wants "massive regulatory reform" that would strip agencies of their power to make new rules. He wants to eliminate the state income tax and replace it with an expanded sales tax. Randles also wants to require the partisan election of circuit judges in Missouri's biggest cities, ditching the current process in which the governor appoints judges from a slate of finalists submitted by a special committee.
"He has nothing substantial," Randles said of Spence. "I'm very clear about what I will do, and that level of specificity and explanation to folks ... are what excite people about my campaign."
Randles was born into an Arkansas family that ran a roadside fruit stand and became a traveling Christian preacher as a teenager. He's earned several college diplomas — capped by a law degree from Harvard University, where he was a classmate of President Barack Obama. He eventually became a partner at the Kansas City law firm of Shook, Hardy & Bacon, where he defended tobacco firms Philip Morris and Lorillard against consumer lawsuits.
Sauer, 67, of Creve Coeur, earned an economics degree from Yale University and a master's in business administration from Stanford University before enlisting in the Navy, where he served on a destroyer near Vietnam. He helped start the Missouri Roundtable for Life, which waged an unsuccessful battle against a 2006 ballot initiative that created a constitutional guarantee to conduct stem cell research in Missouri.
Sauer successfully sued to block a Missouri law passed last fall that sought to create an incentive program for science and technology companies. He believed it amounted to "a socialist venture capitalist system," redistributing tax dollars to favored companies. His objections to that law and other business incentives proposed in the legislature ultimately led Sauer to run for governor.
Like his rivals, Sauer wants to make Missouri a "right-to-work" state and enact education reforms. But Sauer's platform also includes the reinstatement of campaign contribution limits, which he says would limit the influence of interest groups seeking taxpayer dollars from state officials.
"You're looking at a strong citizen activist who decided we've got to try to change things," Sauer said of himself. "I have a lot of experience in confronting government."