Democrats battle while Blunt cruises

Matt Blunt has been left unscathed by negative ads.
Monday, August 2, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 9:26 a.m. CDT, Saturday, July 12, 2008

JEFFERSON CITY — The winner of Tuesday’s Democratic gubernatorial primary is likely to emerge from the fight with little money and a lot of campaign bruises.

The likely reward for the victor: A well-funded Republican opponent whose familiar name has yet to be scarred by a single negative campaign ad.

Conventional wisdom would say that puts Republican Matt Blunt at an advantage for the Nov. 2 general election and relegates either Democrat Bob Holden or Claire McCaskill to an underdog role.

But Democrats at the highest national and state levels are vowing their party will emerge unified from the increasingly bitter gubernatorial primary — ready to rally behind their nominee with cash and commitment.

And some political scientists say the 2004 gubernatorial race may defy conventional wisdom.

One reason is that state Democrats — including both Holden and McCaskill — appear united behind presidential candidate John Kerry. Another is that Missourians historically tilt toward Democrats for statewide offices — evidenced when Al Gore lost Missouri’s presidential vote in 2000, yet Democrats won every state office except Blunt’s secretary of state victory, said Kurt Jefferson, chairman of the political science department at Westminster College.

“Whether Holden comes out and defends his governorship or McCaskill is able to replace him, not only are they battle hardened, but they are in a context that no matter what happens with the White House, they’re in a good position to win,” Jefferson said.

But Jefferson attaches an asterisk to that analysis.

Blunt, obviously, will have an initial fund-raising advantage, he notes.

As of July 22, Blunt’s campaign had $2.6 million on hand. Holden and McCaskill both reported less than $1 million, but they were still spending down their bank accounts to air TV ads against each other. Blunt has yet to run an ad, because none of his lesser-known Republican primary opponents put up much of a challenge.

Initially, the money “will give Blunt an advantage on the planning level of structuring the campaign,” said Steven Puro, a political scientist at Saint Louis University.

But “I think there’s a lot of money out there this year. Money is being raised at an unusually rapid rate,” Puro said. “And if it it’s defined at the national level that Missouri is key, they’re going to be able to raise money — whoever wins” the Democratic primary.

Should she prevail in the Democratic primary, McCaskill is counting on an influx of cash from many of the traditional Democratic donors who have supported Holden, namely the big unions.

Holden, known for his prolific fund-raising abilities, may be in more need — should he win the primary — of picking up the support of McCaskill’s voters who apparently were displeased with him.

To facilitate both scenarios, Kerry’s Missouri campaign director and national Democratic Party Chairman Terry McAuliffe have met personally with Holden and McCaskill to encourage them to come together after the primary.

Holden and McCaskill plan a private day-after, unity breakfast in St. Louis. They both have indicated they will support the other. But questions remain about how aggressive that support will be, and whether it will extend to campaign staffers, volunteers and voters.

The answers may not be clear for a few weeks after the primary.

Puro said the extent to which Blunt benefits depends on how badly split the Democratic Party is and whether they can make peace with one another.

Missouri doesn’t have a much of a history of heavyweight primaries involving incumbent governors.

The only example comes from 1980, when State Treasurer James Spainhower unsuccessfully challenged Gov. Joseph Teasdale in the Democratic primary. With the hindsight of 20-plus years, both politicians have said their divisive primary ultimately made it easier for Republican Kit Bond to win the Governor’s Mansion.

That would be the conventional thought. And that’s what today’s Democratic leaders want to avoid.

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