JEFFERSON CITY – Political and life experience have emerged as a central theme of a gubernatorial contest between Democrat Claire McCaskill and Republican Matt Blunt that’s growing increasingly negative as Election Day nears.
“In case you haven’t noticed, I’m running against a very young man,” McCaskill said of her opponent at a recent fund-raiser in St. Louis’ Central West-End neighborhood.
The candidates’ 18-year difference in age — Blunt is 33 and McCaskill is 51 — is an issue McCaskill brings up frequently on the campaign trail. Blunt, however, has taken a different tack, combing McCaskill’s longer record of public service in search of fodder for attacks.
Meanwhile, two third-party candidates remain largely in the shadows. Libertarian nominee John Swenson of Kirbyville lacks not only a telephone but the endorsement of his own party. And Bob Wells of Clarksville, a 2000 candidate for lieutenant governor, has done little to spread his name since his Constitution Party in August won the right to place candidates on the statewide ballot.
On a recent Friday night in St. Louis, McCaskill was busy lining up money and support from three big constituencies, visiting a woman’s group, labor leaders and an African-American Baptist Church. Between stops, while sitting in an SUV driven by a staff member, she chatted on her cell phone, ironed out details in her latest campaign finance report and called to tell her daughter when she would be home.
As McCaskill’s car sped through a depressed North St. Louis neighborhood, she gazed through the window at abandoned storefronts and shadowy figures on street corners.
“Many of these people have to go so far to shop,” she said
McCaskill displays little anxiety, however, about the frantic closing days of the campaign.
“This is my 18th election,” she said. “I was prepared for how much energy it takes. Quite frankly, I love this part of it.”
Closer to home that week, Blunt’s retrofitted red-white-and-blue RV pulled into a farm near Ashland. Standing amid stacks of wheat seed bags, he stepped up to a podium made of pallets.
“In a recent nationwide survey, the president did not fare well at all,” Blunt said. “In this nationwide survey, 78 percent of the people said they were for John Kerry, and only 9 percent were for George Bush.”
“That’s the bad news,” Blunt said. “The good news is the nationwide survey was conducted in France.”
The joke sent the barn full of farmers into fits of laughter. Blunt worked the crowd with boyish vigor — extending firm handshakes and listening to the people with focused eyes. Blunt, Missouri’s secretary of state, expresses optimism about his campaign.
“I think on a number of public policy issues, you’ll find that my views are in line with those folks who live in rural Missouri,” Blunt said.
Moral values are a big part of Blunt’s campaign, and he has repeatedly criticized McCaskill’s lack of support for the constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. More than 70 percent of Missouri voters approved that amendment in August.
As he spoke to the Ashland gathering, his wife, Melanie Blunt, rolled her eyes while laughing at her husband’s jokes. The two have a child due in March.
“I have been introduced as the pro-marriage candidate for governor,” Blunt said. “Since Melanie’s married to me, she’s only pro-marriage part of the time.”
Blunt’s stop in Ashland, part of a two-day tour of central Missouri farms and agricultural facilities, was followed by an endorsement from the Missouri Farm Bureau and Missouri Soybean Association.
“I think it’s accurate to say agriculture stands solidly behind Matt Blunt for governor,” Farm Bureau President Charles Kruse said. “Do you know who stands solidly behind Claire McCaskill? The Sierra Club.”
Blunt, whose family hails from southwest Missouri, is the son of U.S. Rep. Roy Blunt, the House majority whip. Matt Blunt’s political experience includes one term as a state representative and one as secretary of state. He has tried to emphasize the importance of consistent and accountable state government and touts a record of saving tax dollars by improving efficiency in the secretary of state’s office.
As a graduate of the Naval Academy, Blunt, during the conflict in Afghanistan, became the only statewide elected official in Missouri history to be called into active duty.
McCaskill sees her long career in public service as an advantage over her opponent. It began in 1983, when she won election as a state representative from Kansas City. She kept that job until 1988 then served as Jackson County’s prosecuting attorney for six years. She was elected state auditor in 1999.
Spokesman Glenn Campbell said McCaskill decided to run for governor after the veto session of 2003, which he said proved Gov. Bob Holden no longer held influence over the General Assembly.
McCaskill is strongly courting the St. Louis area, which Campbell noted comprises 40 percent of Missouri’s voting population. Throughout her stops, she kept reminding her audience that there would be no televised debate in St. Louis.
“I’m running against a spokesman and a script,” she said. “Matt Blunt is nowhere to be seen.”
Although she lives in St. Louis County, McCaskill said Kansas City still feels like home after spending 20 years of her adult life there. With a foothold in Missouri’s two biggest cities, McCaskill has made it clear she is unwilling to concede either to her opponent.
During campaign stops in St. Louis, McCaskill defended her values.
“These guys think they have a corner on the market in values and patriotism,” she said of the Republicans.
McCaskill has also criticized Blunt for his negative TV commercials. A recent ad criticized McCaskill’s record on nursing home regulation as state auditor.
“Some of the negativity in this campaign is unfortunate because I think it’s going to impact,” she said. “When people see the negative ad after negative ad, they get tired of it and tune out.”
McCaskill, however, has been waging a negative campaign as well. A recent TV ad from her campaign lampoons Blunt, featuring an actor playing the Republican candidate as he’s grilled about a lack of experience during a fictitious job interview for governor.
Hefty challenges await the winner of the contest. Inheriting the legacy of a governor who had a poor relationship with the General Assembly will be a formidable task. Both candidates have had a lot of practice reaching out as their campaigns crisscross the state.
Speaking to the congregation at Missionary Baptist Church in North St. Louis, McCaskill punctuated her speech with multiple references to God as shouts of “Amen!” echoed through the crowd.
“Allow me to be your friend, to be your partner,” she said.
Blunt, too, wants people to believe he has their hopes at heart. “My views, they recognize, really, our need to craft public policy that works in the best interest of Missourians,” he said while preparing to board his campaign RV.
“I think Missouri’s a competitive state, and it is because of that keen competition (that) a single county in Missouri could determine who wins the race,” Blunt said. “It could be the margin of victory one way or the other.”
Age: 64. He is divorced and has three children.
High school graduate.
Retired. Swenson is a former manager of a steam-washing business, factory worker and traveling salesman. He is also a veteran of the U.S. Navy.
Libertarian candidate for governor in 2000, Republican primary candidate for governor in 1996.
Constitution Party, Clarksville
Age: 54. He is married to Kim Wells. They have eight children.
Bachelor’s degree from Washington University in St. Louis.
Director of program management at Worldwide Technology in St. Louis. He has 33 years of experience in telecommunications.
Deacon of his church, New Covenant. Served as state chairman for the Constitution Party from 1997 to 1999. Ran for lieutenant governor in 2000 on the Constitution Party ticket. Currently working to establish an organization called the National Coalition to Restore the Constitution.