By some measures, Missouri's campaign for Governor is well underway.
Press releases are flowing, money is being raised, people are being polled. The tit-for-tat is in, if not overdrive -- at least in drive.
But something just doesn't feel right when I call "supposed" Republican party people, and many know next to nothing about their two major candidates for Governor, including in some cases, even their names.
"Tell me who's on the ticket," replied Alice Wendt, who's listed as a precinct captain on the Greene County G.O.P's website. "I don't really know much about either to suit me," said another precinct captain, Eric Vought. But they've even got a head start on others I cold-called, who couldn't tell me the names of Kenny Hulshof and Sarah Steelman.
"I know she's fairly new to politics . . . I think?," said another, who's name will remain anonymous to protect against any possible embarrassment.
Former Senator and State Treasurer Steelman, new to politics?
Maybe I'm not talking to the right "party faithful" --- the people who put the signs up, staple the newsletter together and lick the envelopes. I'm sure they're busy people with stuff to do. The weather is getting nicer. But it is May. And in exactly three months, there will be a Republican primary for Governor. Then again, if you were actively looking for information on Hulshof or Steelman's campaign websites, you'd come up empty --- besides (of course) a standard form to send money.
There are a few schools of thought on all of this. One is that both Republican campaigns --- by no fault of their own --- are/were behind organizationally. That they've focused most of their time on fundraising and getting staff in place. That once the legislative session is over, things will kick into gear. That, really, what we're dealing with is a one-month fireball of a campaign in the summer sweat of July. "We're in phony war time until sometime in June is my guess," said one Springfield Republican supporting Steelman. "We're in the silly season . . . And then will come ads ad nauseam."
Another school is that, the early signals from both campaigns do matter -- because first impressions stick. Steelman may be more of a household name than Hulshof, but it's unclear by how much. And while Steelman has the name I.D. edge, Hulshof has the institutional upper-hand. The theory goes that the political people around the state -- the ones who are plugged in, give money, read editorial pages (and perhaps a blog or two) are watching closely -- and that with two partly-unknown candidates, missteps (however small) may matter more.
But as one smart politico pointed out to me, a primary campaign is more like a baseball season than a college football season. You can lose some games, during the year. In fact, you can lose a bunch here and there in March and April. There's no pressure to go undefeated. You've just got to be at least one game better than you're opponent come August.
Some in Steelman-land smile about Hulshof's name identification, especially in Southwest Missouri. They believe he'll have flip-flop problems to deal with on stem cells, fee offices and ethics reform. And oh, did we mention he's from Washington. And how lonngg he's been there. Hulshof backers are quick to point out Steelman's flubbed immigration rollout. "Her first shot out, she got caught making up numbers," a Republican with ties to the Hulshof campaign said to me. "The contrast you'll see will be substantive."
Some politicos scratched their head about Hulshof's decision to open up his Springfield campaign with ethics reform -- and not with something more meat and potatoes. Hulshof backers retort, that ethics is big part of who he is and that it will matter going forward. They feel like Steelman's tort reform and collective bargaining positions will end up breaking her with conservatives. And they say once Republicans get to know Kenny, they'll come home. Because Kenny's dang good with people. Smooth, and a reaal good talker. Wait til' those summers debates.
You can tell how much some of Steelman's people relish the role of the underdog by how many times they mention it. But mention that to the Hulshof team and they'll note that she's had a statewide campaign in place since 2003 --- yet, he's the one with a full organizational chart and chairs in every county. You can't have it both ways. If he's got the low name-I.D., and behind in the early polling isn't he the underdog?
The one thing that will eventually bring these groups of Republicans together is Jay Nixon. It's Nixon who now takes on the role of incumbent. When he walks into the room, it almost feels like he's running for re-election. Loyal Dems rise, salute and clap.
Talk to any sober Republican and they'll acknowledge a disadvantage. Nixon is out talking policy, (mostly) above the fray, with no worries of a messy primary. Until recently, Nixon's campaign has avoided engaging Hulshof or Steelman directly. Gov. Matt Blunt is still happy to lure the Attorney General into the fray, and there seems to be a shadow campaign in that sense.
But there is a substance gap that the Republicans need to fill, and considerable catching up to do on policy. This may not be the year that "tax and spend liberal" will stick to the wall. Specifics are needed, especially when a bunch of voters don't even know your name. And of course those details will come, but they will get less time and attention because of the compressed campaign schedule.
Democrats aren't even quite sure who they'd rather run against. And even some whisper that Nixon's biggest problem could be his own mouth and sticking his foot near it. The Republicans appear to like his lonnng record. "He has a history of not performing well come election time," said a Hulshof backer. "His numbers are in the 40s. That's like an incumbent in trouble. He IS the incumbent," added a Steelman supporter, gleefully. It's sure that some of this is spin. Republicans know this could be a tough year for them. But one said he'd be worried if they were facing anyone BUT Nixon. Some will even outright dismiss Nixon's policy rollout advantage. Sure, he unveiled his higher ed plan, they claim. Trotted it all around the state. But I bet you less than 5 percent of Missourians could name one thing about it, one snipes.
Because nobody's paying attention yet. Let them get through prom season, graduation, vacation planning, and take in some Cardinals games . . . and wake them in July.