KANSAS CITY — Democrats dumped embattled Gov. Bob Holden from their ticket Tuesday in favor of State Auditor Claire McCaskill, who held herself out as the best hope to swing Missouri — and the White House — to Democrats in November.
Holden, derisively dubbed “One-Term Bob” by opponents from the beginning of his term, became the first Missouri governor ever to lose in a primary and the first nationally in 10 years.
“Tonight is the beginning of the Missouri comeback,” McCaskill declared during a victory party in Kansas City. “Tonight is the night that, as Democrats, we can focus on hope and have confidence that we can win in November.”
McCaskill led Holden, 52 percent to 45 percent, with 92 percent of the statewide precincts reporting complete but unofficial results. Holden won in vote-rich St. Louis County, but McCaskill won throughout most of the rest of the state. In Boone County, McCaskill outpaced Holden 64 percent to 34 percent.
She will face a tough contest in the Nov. 2 general election against Republican Secretary of State Matt Blunt, who easily defeated several lesser-known GOP candidates for governor, according to unofficial results.
Holden called McCaskill to congratulate her, then broke the news to his supporters gathered in St. Louis by urging Democrats to unite behind her.
“I want all of you to know we are all Democrats and we will work to elect this Democratic ticket in November 2004,” Holden said.
McCaskill made electability a key issue in the primary, insisting she not only stood a better chance of beating Blunt in the Nov. 2 general election but could help carry Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry to victory in this important swing state.
Holden countered by invoking the name of Missouri’s most famous Democrat, Harry Truman, who scored a stunning re-election victory in 1948 while Democrats also took back Congress from Republicans.
But Holden faced difficulties of his own making, and of circumstances.
He threw a $1 million inaugural party he struggled to pay off, then was forced to make millions of dollars in state budget cuts as the economy — and state revenues — plunged downward. Voters defeated a transportation tax plan he supported, and Republicans won control of the Missouri Legislature during his term for the first time in a half-century.
“Holden just was overcome by a lot of baggage, and it wasn’t all his fault, such as the economic problems,” said David Robertson, a political scientist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. “He wound up with a strong opponent who accurately sensed weakness in Holden’s ability to sell his program and his achievements.”
Blunt, meanwhile, said his overwhelming victory illustrated his momentum against whoever emerges from the Democratic primary.
“I think it’s symbolic of the unity we have as a party,” Blunt said, “and the fact that we’re all watching a very competitive race on the other side is very symbolic of the differences they have.”
Holden and McCaskill engaged in a high-dollar and increasingly negative campaign as the primary drew near.
Known as a prolific fund-raiser, Holden had raised $7.1 million with 12 days remaining before the election — twice that of McCaskill’s $3.5 million. McCaskill and her husband, St. Louis-area developer Joseph Shepard, loaned her campaign more than $1.6 million.
McCaskill claimed Holden was an ineffective leader, citing his $1 million inaugural party, Missouri’s poor roads, education funding cuts, a veto override on a concealed guns bill and the loss of the legislature to Republicans during his term.
Holden highlighted Missouri’s recent job growth and passage of economic development bills among his successes, and he claimed credit for preventing some Republican-proposed cuts to schools and health care. He cast himself as the Democrats’ best defense against the GOP legislature.
Holden won the 2000 election against Republican Jim Talent by just 21,445 votes out of more than 2.3 million cast — a margin of less than one percentage point.
McCaskill’s candidacy marked the first serious same-party challenge of a sitting Missouri governor since 1980.
Nationally, no incumbent governor had lost in a primary since 1994. Yet of the 17 gubernatorial 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.