Democrat Chuck Graham begins almost every conversation with a countdown to Election Day.
“Thirty-nine more days,” he said recently, with a trace of anxiety.
Republican Mike Ditmore, Graham’s opponent in the 19th District state Senate race, is also feeling the increased pressure.
As Nov. 2 bears down, their days become more hectic, filled with appearances at church picnics, festivals and small-town parades. The events give voters the opportunity to learn how the candidates’ personalities and backgrounds differ as much as their platforms do.
Graham, 39, has served in the House of Representatives for eight years and is savvy about the political scene. He knows how to work a crowd and has a reputation for being determined, solid and aggressive. He campaigned hard in the primary, edging past his opponent, Tim Harlan, at the polls.
“Emotionally, this (part of the race) will not be as difficult because I’m not running against a fellow Democrat, not asking friends of mine who support both of us to choose between us,” he said. “But you have to get out regardless of who your opponent is.”
The campaign is particularly important to Graham, who will be out of a job if he loses the general election.
Ditmore, 60, however, is new to politics and displays the naiveté and sincerity of someone unspoiled by the political system. Graham was criticized over the summer for accepting gifts from lobbyists after a study by the Kansas City Star showed Graham had received the highest number of gifts.
Ditmore labeled Graham “a professional politician.” Ditmore said he’ll worry more about solving the state’s problems than winning the next election. Graham countered by saying the Missouri Senate “is no place for on-the-job training.”
At debates and forums, Ditmore tends to be more deliberate, Graham more confident and outspoken.
“Mike Ditmore is not as engaging of a speaker,” voter David Hawkins said after a recent forum sponsored by the Columbia Rotary Club. “Chuck Graham has a lot of practice at that, so he’s a more eloquent speaker. But he also kind of feels more like a politician than I’m comfortable with.”
Self-described as intense and persistent, Ditmore said his biggest challenge in the legislature will be staying patient and learning to compromise.
“I want to see results,” he said. “I need to be flexible.”
The former neurosurgeon has less name recognition than Graham but said he will bring new ideas to the Senate. He would also have the advantage of being in the majority party.
Democrats have controlled the 19th District Senate seat for 32 years, but Republicans statewide have control of both the House and Senate.
Both candidates emphasize their backgrounds in an effort to relate to voters.
Ditmore highlights his rural roots to connect to voters in outlying areas of the 19th District, which includes all of Boone and Randolph counties. He was raised on a farm in Neosho, near Joplin, and now lives on a 75-acre farm in Rocheport.
Graham cites his personal experiences living with a medical disability to demonstrate his perseverance and to argue he’s a stronger advocate for better health care.
Injuries Graham suffered in a car accident when he was 16 left him paralyzed from the chest down. He uses a wheelchair and frequently reminds his voters of that fact during the campaign.
“Chuck Graham was told he couldn’t go to college … he could never play sports … and may not ever find a job,” one direct-mail flier reads. “He graduated from college, was an award-winning basketball player and was elected year after year as our full-time state representative in Jefferson City. That’s why Chuck Graham fights so hard for us.”
Graham carries a reputation for being strong and resolute. He touts his effectiveness at blocking bad legislation as much as his ability to pass progressive measures.
Graham lists as major achievements his efforts to prevent the MU medical school from being moved to Kansas City last year and his success in thwarting Southwest Missouri State University’s push to become Missouri State University. He passed legislation in 2002 to eliminate spikes in the foundation formula that funnels state money to public schools. He is proud of his push to create a program that allows medical services to be provided to people with severe disabilities if they choose to remain in their own home instead of entering a nursing facility.
Ditmore, on the other hand, tries to use his political inexperience as an advantage in his campaign, saying he would bring real-life know-how to the legislature. His campaign strategy has been to be as public as possible and to meet with as many people as he can. His office is filled with fliers waiting to be mailed and signs waiting to be staked. His days are filled with one appointment after another — door-to-door appearances, parades in Higbee, fund-raising events in Moberly and meetings with local Republicans.
Ditmore has met individually with Columbia City Council members, MU deans and the superintendent and teachers from Columbia Public Schools. When President Bush visited Columbia in early September, Ditmore spent several minutes talking with him about tort reform. Bush later gave Ditmore a plug during his speech at the Boone County Fairgrounds.
“Being on the faculty at the university, being a small-business person and being on the inside of health care, which are the big issues to us, I think when you bring those experiences, you think outside the box and are not still doing it the way you’ve been doing it the last eight years,” Ditmore said. “You bring a whole new perspective.”