JEFFERSON CITY — Challenging an incumbent Democratic governor in a key presidential swing state, Democrat Claire McCaskill thinks she has hit upon a winning message: If Democrats dump Gov. Bob Holden, she can help carry them to victory in the fall.
With Missouri’s Aug. 3 party primaries drawing near, public opinion polls show McCaskill in a dead heat with Holden, and Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry in a similarly close race against Republican President Bush.
So McCaskill, the state auditor, is pressing the issue of how Democrats can best win in November. Put simply: “I can help Sen. Kerry better than Gov. Holden,” McCaskill said.
McCaskill is running against the odds. An incumbent governor hasn’t lost a primary in the United State since 1994.
But should she prevail, her odds of winning the general election rise significantly. Of the 17 challengers who knocked off same-party incumbents since 1970, 12 went on to win the governor’s office, according to research by Thad Beyle, a political scientist at University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.
As of right now, “it looks pretty tough for the governor” of Missouri, Beyle said.
Holden is putting up a vigorous defense by comparing himself to President Truman, Missouri’s Democratic icon who won a stunning 1948 election by campaigning against a “do-nothing” Republican Congress. During a recent debate, Holden proclaimed himself “the governor that stood the test time” against Missouri’s Republican-led Legislature.
Kerry has endorsed no one in Missouri’s gubernatorial primary and hasn’t visited the state since a June 3 speech at the Truman Presidential Library — an event that occurred just as Holden began running the first TV ads of the gubernatorial primary.
Kerry’s campaign insists the Democratic infighting hasn’t kept him away from Missouri; Kerry plans to come back as part of his 21-state swing after next week’s Democratic National Convention. Yet the uncertainty of the gubernatorial primary has made campaigning in Missouri problematic for Democrats.
“We’re looking forward to moving past the primary and having a (gubernatorial) nominee and getting to a point where there is solidarity behind the ticket,” said Kerry’s Missouri campaign spokesman, Michael Golden.
Holden, 54, and McCaskill, who turns 51 Saturday, share similar political roots.
Both won election to the Missouri House in 1982 and served six years before leaving public office. After working for Rep. Dick Gephardt, Holden won two terms as state treasurer and then narrowly captured the governorship in 2000. McCaskill served as a prosecutor before returning to state politics by winning two terms as state auditor.
But now their energies are turned against one another. Holden accuses McCaskill of political opportunism for taking campaign donations from businesses upset about Holden’s opposition to concealed guns and his effort to close tax loopholes. McCaskill criticizes Holden for his $1 million inaugural party, frequent early-term jet trips, education funding cuts and Missouri’s bumpy, potholed roads.
The primary battle could leave either candidate too wounded to win in November — or be of much help to Kerry, said Dave Robertson, a political scientist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. Even under an optimistic scenario for Democrats, a Holden victory may contribute little to Kerry’s cause, but McCaskill could give Kerry a slight boost, he said.
“She won’t have the baggage he would have,” Robertson said, “and she has had a little bit of success reaching out to independent, suburban voters — I think of them as (Ross) Perot voters” who want government efficiency and no tax increases.
Holden has unsuccessfully called for tax increases on tobacco, casinos and wealthy Missourians to fund education and health care. McCaskill opposes tax increases, instead vowing to implement 100 of her money-saving audit recommendations in her first 100 days as governor.
A recent poll conducted for The Kansas City Star and KMBC-TV showed McCaskill with a 45 percent to 37 percent advantage in a hypothetical November matchup against Republican gubernatorial front-runner, Secretary of State Matt Blunt. In the same poll, Holden garnered 42 percent support against Blunt’s 44 percent. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.
Seizing on that, McCaskill has enlisted former Gov. Roger Wilson to send a letter to fellow Democrats next week highlighting the national implications of the governor’s race. In an interview, Wilson praised McCaskill’s dynamic speaking ability — a contrast to Holden, whose speaking pace and tone rarely come off as forceful, even when his words are.
A Holden campaign spokesman said the best Democratic ticket would include the incumbent.
“I think Bob Holden’s record of fighting for Democratic principles and the accomplishments he’s had will complement (Kerry’s) message better,” said Holden spokesman Caleb Weaver. “There are a lot of similarities in the way these two men have approached their political life.”