JEFFERSON CITY — Former U.S. Attorney and Missouri House Speaker Catherine Hanaway announced on Monday that she is running for governor in 2016 as Republicans seek to recapture an office they have held just once in the past two decades.
Hanaway is the first Republican to enter the gubernatorial race, giving her a chance to build a campaign network and bank account that could cause other potential GOP candidates to think twice. Yet she will be starting from behind financially compared with Democratic Attorney General Chris Koster, who has been building a gubernatorial campaign for almost a year already.
"I am announcing today that I'm running for governor because I feel like our state's stuck in neutral if not rolling backwards," Hanaway said in an interview with The Associated Press.
"The Democrats have an unopposed kind of quasi nominee already who is working very hard to put together his political operation," Hanaway added. "I think letting time pass makes it more difficult to win. I'm trying to build the best grass-roots organization ever in Missouri."
Missouri's top executive office will open because Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon is barred by term limits from seeking re-election.
Although Republicans hold commanding majorities in the state legislature, Democrats have fared better in elections for statewide executive offices. Since Republican Gov. John Ashcroft's term ended in 1993, Missouri voters have elected just one other Republican governor — Matt Blunt, who served from 2005-2009 and did not seek re-election.
"Much of the conservative agenda has been stymied by the fact that for 20 of the last 24 years we will have had a Democratic governor," said Hanaway, who is a member of the Republican National Committee.
She pointed specifically to Nixon's veto of an income tax cut passed last year by lawmakers. But Hanaway also cited her support for more limits on personal injury lawsuits and a proposed "right to work" law that would prohibit union fees from being a condition of employment. She also said Missouri needs to modernize its education system though she endorsed no specific ways of doing that.
Hanaway, 50, of St. Louis County, will be attempting to make a political comeback more than a decade after she last appeared on a Missouri ballot.
She first won election to the Missouri House in 1998 to represent a suburban St. Louis district while Republicans were still in the minority. She then rose to become the chamber's GOP leader and captained the Republican takeover of the House in the 2002 elections. She was subsequently chosen by colleagues as House speaker, the first woman to serve in that role.
Hanaway lost a bid for secretary of state in 2004. But she wasn't without a job long. She was appointed by President George W. Bush as U.S. attorney for eastern Missouri in 2005. She resigned from that office in April 2009, a few months into President Barack Obama's term, and teamed up with Ashcroft — a former U.S. attorney general — in private legal practice.
She left Ashcroft's firm in September to join the law firm of Husch Blackwell LLP in St. Louis.
Hanaway said her political efforts have been handled by the Citizens for a Stronger Missouri committee, which formed in December. Online Missouri Ethics Commission records show the committee reported just $8,100 in its account at the start of this year, $3,000 of which came from U.S. Rep. Ann Wagner and her husband. Hanaway said it would soon give way to her own official campaign committee.
Koster's campaign committee reported having nearly $1.6 million on its account at the start of this year.
A Koster campaign spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a request for comment about Hanaway's candidacy.
Among the other potential GOP gubernatorial candidates in 2016 is Auditor Tom Schweich. But Schweich first faces his own re-election bid this year. A campaign spokesman said Schweich would have no comment about Hanaway's candidacy.