SPRINGFIELD — A potential Republican primary for Missouri governor was stirring concern among some party activists Saturday as hundreds of Republicans gathered for an annual conference — unity being its unofficial theme.
During the Lincoln Days event this weekend, numerous Republican leaders repeatedly stressed the need to patch over divisions that have contributed to state GOP candidates losing to Democrats in nine of the past 13 statewide elections and also stymied GOP efforts in Washington.
"Unity is really what is going to matter. ...That's what's going to win elections," Sharon Day, co-chairwoman of the Republican National Committee, told Missouri GOP leaders. Similar encouragements were made by U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt and other top elected GOP officials.
Yet those calls for unity come as several Republicans are positioning themselves for a potential 2016 gubernatorial bid.
Catherine Hanaway, a former U.S. attorney and Missouri House speaker, already declared her candidacy for governor. State Auditor Tom Schweich, who's up for re-election this year, also is expected to run, and businessman John Brunner is publicly contemplating a governor's bid. But Schweich and Brunner are both waiting to announce decisions until after the 2014 elections.
All three were networking among fellow Republicans at the Springfield conference — sometimes just several feet away from one another.
Attendees at the convention received plastic "I like Schweich" gift bags that contained, among other things, a granola bar with a "Catherine Hanaway for Governor" sticker.
Schweich and Brunner found themselves in a potentially awkward situation late Friday when Schweich visited a reception hosted by Brunner supporters and got caught up in an impromptu campaign rally. With Schweich near the front of the small room, Republican activist Brenda Webb quieted the crowd of a couple dozen people and introduced Brunner as "our man of the hour."
"The person I would want to be working for — even though he's not running for anything yet — is John Brunner," Webb said. "I just want him to know that his supporters have not gone away."
Brunner told his supporters that Schweich has earned his respect as auditor and should be re-elected.
Schweich, who spoke at various events through the weekend, touted his distinction as the first Republican to unseat a Democratic incumbent in a state executive office in 34 years when he defeated Susan Montee in 2010. He urged party discipline in 2014 and future elections.
"We have to unite around proven winners," Schweich said.
Hanaway spoke Saturday to the Republican State Committee but generally kept a lower profile at the conference. She talked individually with attendees, whom she described as "the pre-eminent grass-roots organizers from around the state."
"I am 100 percent committed to running for governor," Hanaway reaffirmed in an interview. "We're Republicans, which means we value individual effort, opinion, decisions, which is how we end up with a lot of primaries."
Two years ago, Brunner was part of a multi-way Republican U.S. Senate primary won by U.S. Rep. Todd Akin. The party splintered when Akin later made a controversial statement about rape and abortion, and he was defeated decisively by Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill.
Republicans also faced a divisive gubernatorial primary in 2008, when Democrat Jay Nixon ultimately won.
Democrats already appear unified behind Attorney General Chris Koster as their next gubernatorial nominee. Some Republicans cited that as all the more reason to avoid a primary.
Mike West, a Republican State Committee member from Fulton, was one of many GOP leaders who said in interviews that they hoped to avoid a 2016 gubernatorial primary. Otherwise, "they spend a lot of money fighting each other just to get the nomination, and it depletes their war chest," West said. "It really puts them behind."