JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon won re-election Tuesday, turning back a challenge from Republican businessman Dave Spence in a job-themed campaign that offered voters two distinctly different viewpoints on the health of Missouri's economy.
Nixon, a Democrat, ran a centrist campaign highlighting budget cuts and tax cuts enacted in cooperation with a Republican-led legislature. And he traveled to scores of ribbon cuttings, groundbreakings and business expansions over the past couple years to highlight his efforts to expand the economic recovery.
"To the people of Missouri, thank you for your confidence, for this great honor to continue serving as your governor," Nixon told supporters at his St. Louis victory party. "Missourians said that because we've been able to work together, because we are putting the common good first, we are moving in the right direction."
Spence had claimed that Nixon's anecdotal examples of job growth masked the truth about a poor economy that trailed those of neighboring states last year. He asserted that Nixon was claiming budgetary and policy successes rightly attributable to Republican lawmakers. And Spence said his own experience as a business owner made him better suited to spur economic development. He put $6.6 million of his own money into the race.
Nixon's victory made him the first Missouri governor to win re-election since Democrat Mel Carnahan in 1996.
In his ads, Nixon declared that his administration was "getting folks back to work," citing the fact that state unemployment rates are below the national average. His top anecdotal evidence: decisions by Ford and General Motors to invest big bucks in assembly plants in the Kansas City and St. Louis areas after the passage of an automotive incentives law during a 2010 special session called by Nixon.
Nixon also noted his steady leadership in natural disasters, though he never campaigned too overtly on the issue. In 2011 alone, Nixon was at the helm during a blizzard, massive flooding along the Mississippi and Missouri rivers and the deadly Joplin tornado. This year, Nixon managed the state's response to a widespread drought.
Voters who backed Nixon cited his track record.
"More experience. I like people that have shown that they can do things," said Easton Miller, 22, of Jefferson City, who is an overnight stocker at Walmart.
Some of Spence's supporters pointed to his private-sector experience and concerns about the economy.
"He is such a job creator you wouldn't believe. He could take a penny and change it into a thousand-dollar bill," said Joan Schnoebelen, 69, a real estate agent from the St. Louis suburb of Warson Woods.
Nixon, 56, previously served 16 years as attorney general and six as a state senator from his hometown of De Soto after graduating from MU with a law degree. Because of term limits, this was the last time he could run for governor.
Spence, 54, of Ladue, campaigned primarily on his private-sector business experience. Not long after graduating from MU with a home economics degree, Spence bought a small plastic bottle manufacturer, Alpha Packaging.
He touted its expansion over a couple of decades from a company with 15 employees and annual sales of $350,000 to 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, though he remains the chairman of another firm, Legacy Pharmaceutical Packaging.
Nixon's ads focused on Spence's tenure on the board of St. Louis-based Reliance Bancshares when it decided it couldn't make payments on a $40 million bailout from the federal government. Spence sued Nixon for defamation over the ads' portrayal of him as a banker who used federal bailout money to buy a vacation home — an assertion that he said was false, though he did receive a bank loan for a home at the Lake of the Ozarks.
At one point, a frustrated Spence alleged that Nixon had "sold his soul to the devil" in an attempt to win re-election.