KANSAS CITY — Operating on barely two hours of sleep after a stunning primary victory, State Auditor Claire McCaskill quickly set out Wednesday to unite the Democratic Party behind her gubernatorial candidacy — reaching out to defeated Gov. Bob Holden for his supporters’ cash and commitment.
Her new rival, the well-funded Republican Secretary of State Matt Blunt, immediately went on the offensive with TV advertising and a cross-state campaign tour.
Their contest in the Nov. 2 general election could have broad political implications. The strength of the gubernatorial candidates and their party machines could provide the edge for either Republican President Bush or Democratic challenger John Kerry in the traditional swing state of Missouri.
One of McCaskill’s first missions as the new Democratic standard-bearer was to meet with the old one. She emerged from a private breakfast at the Governor’s Mansion in Jefferson City proclaiming “the governor wished me luck and said he’d do whatever he could do to help in November.”
Holden did not answer questions at his house, but in conceding defeat Tuesday night, he urged supporters to rally behind McCaskill.
One immediate result of Wednesday’s meeting: McCaskill announced that auditor’s office staff member Corey Dillon will take over today as executive director of the Missouri Democratic Party, replacing Holden supporter Mike Kelley. McCaskill pledged more party changes to come.
But rather than dismantling the Democratic infrastructure, McCaskill said she is trying to build it up.
“The most immediate goal, obviously, is to reach out to all of the wonderful people who supported Gov. Holden and let them know how much I respect them and the position they took,” McCaskill said.
She spent much of the day calling — and receiving phone calls from — Holden supporters and national Democratic Party figures, including Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe, Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack and Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius. She also expected a call Wednesday from Kerry, whom she planned to appear with at today’s Statehouse rally.
Blunt’s TV ad — a biographical sketch tracing his life from infant to Naval officer to husband to secretary of state — highlighted the need for McCaskill to rebuild her depleted campaign account. Blunt reported $2.6 million on hand before the primary election.
“Now that there is a respite from the mud pit that was the Democratic primary, this is a good opportunity for us to introduce Matt Blunt to those Missourians who may not be familiar with him yet,” said Blunt spokesman John Hancock, adding that the ad had been planned no matter who won the Democratic primary.
Blunt’s father, Rep. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., was the loser in Missouri’s last hotly contested gubernatorial primary, a three-way GOP race in 1992. At the time, Roy Blunt was secretary of state.
“As bitter as this Democratic primary has been, it is not as bitter as the 1992 Republican primary for governor,” said political scientist Dave Robertson, of the University of Missouri-St. Louis. “The Democrats are really hungry to win this fall, and that should give them incentive to find unity. The question is, can they find the money to compete?”
McCaskill said she hoped to tap into Holden’s prolific fund-raising abilities.
Also in question is whether McCaskill can carry rural Missouri — which has gone increasingly Republican in recent years — against Blunt, just as she did against Holden.
McCaskill defeated Holden 52 percent to 45 percent — 436,855 votes to Holden’s 382,862 — with all statewide precincts reporting complete but unofficial results. She won 98 of Missouri’s 114 counties and racked up a 2-to-1 margin in some rural areas; Holden’s largest lead came in St. Louis city and county.
“I have a message that resonates in out-state Missouri about accountability in government,” McCaskill said. “I think we have debunked the notion that there is not a Democratic candidate who can do well in Missouri outside Kansas City and St. Louis.”
Blunt also is running on making government more efficient and accountable to the public. His TV commercial concludes with the campaign slogan: “Matt Blunt for governor. Leadership. Vision. Change.”