JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri House Republicans were told they could get a well-funded party primary opponent in this year's election for voting to sustain a gubernatorial veto of tax-cut legislation.
Despite those threats, 15 Republicans voted to sustain Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon's veto last year. Yet as candidate filing closed last week, just four of that group drew August primary opponents — and it's not definitively clear that their tax cut vote had anything to do with that.
Eight of those Republican tax-cut dissenters will face no primary opponent, and half of those won't even have challengers for the general election. Three of the 15 chose not to run again.
Those figures show that the strategy to recruit primary challengers didn't work, said Rep. Elaine Gannon, R-DeSoto, who remains unopposed despite having voted to sustain Nixon's tax-cut veto.
"I feel like I took a stand and I stuck with my constituents and I stuck with my conscience. If I had to do it over again, I would do the very same thing," Gannon said.
The Missouri Club for Growth had labeled the GOP tax-cut dissenters the "flimsy 15" and made old-style "WANTED" posters seeking donations to help oust them from office in the next election.
Club adviser Todd Abrajano said the group followed through on its promise to try to oust the Republicans who opposed the tax cut. He said group members have spoken to the candidates that are challenging the four incumbents, but declined to say whether Club for Growth would provide financial backing to them.
Rep. Paul Fitzwater is one of those facing a primary opponent. But Fitzwater said he didn't know if the challenger and tax-cut vote were linked, because the same opponent ran against him in 2010.
The link between the tax cut vote and another challenger's decision is also unclear.
John Bailey, an orthopedic physician from Kirksville, is challenging incumbent GOP Rep. Nate Walker in a primary. While Bailey said he was aware of Walker's vote on the tax cut, he said he wants his campaign to focus on issues affecting doctors and believes the Legislature needs more physicians. Walker, R-Kirksville, said he is focusing on the current legislative session, not a campaign.
George Connor, a political scientist at Missouri State University, said he doesn't see any immediate connection between last year's tax-cut vote and this year's primaries. He said many of these incumbents would have drawn challengers anyway, noting that three of the five challengers taking on the four incumbents had sought their party's nomination previously.
Connor said a state constitutional provision that limits legislative service to eight years each in the House and Senate can negatively impact the ability of groups to field primary challengers. He said that's because running for office requires a lot of time and effort for which there are often few rewards.
"You can't make a difference in eight years, and that is going to discourage people for running for public office," he said.
Term limits could also cause want-to-be lawmakers to wait out an incumbent and run for an open seat. This has caused many incumbents to get a free pass as they run for another term. This year, 49 current members of the 163-seat House are running in uncontested races and won't have to campaign to return to the chamber in 2015.
If Missouri Club for Growth does decide to support the primary candidates, it has a lot of money to do so after retired investor Rex Sinquefield poured $973,000 into the group's campaign coffers this past week. Last year, Sinquefield donated $750,000 to the group, which ran TV ads encouraging lawmakers to override Nixon's veto.
"We want to do everything we can do in order to make sure that the next time that bill comes to a vote, the votes are there to pass it," Abrajano said.
Connor said the pivotal tax cut vote might not be on primary voters' minds in August. He said people are more likely to vote for someone active in the community and not dwell on a particular vote on legislation.
Rep. David Wood, who also supported Nixon's veto, agreed. Wood is running unopposed, a fact he attributes to his community presence. He said he has driven 100,000 miles through his district over the past three years.
"If someone wanted to run and compete against that, that's fine," the Versailles Republican said.