Sunday, June 01, 2008

What Lies Beneath

If Sarah Steelman is able to attain her party's nomination for Governor this August, it will be a striking rebuke to top Republican leaders and a G.O.P. establishment that clearly has an aversion to her candidacy.

It's not just Senator Kit Bond's endorsement of Kenny Hulshof that lends evidence to this reality. The Steelman people openly acknowledge it, and are learning to embrace it. It's no secret Gov. Matt Blunt is no fan of Steelman. After Blunt's decision not to run for re-election in January, a former high level official in his administration refused to list Steelman as a potential candidate in an interview. After the camera stopped rolling and I asked why, he let me know he left her off the list intentionally. "Conservatives can't trust Sarah Steelman," he said. Hulshof has the backing of around 70 state lawmakers. And, the KY3 Political Notebook has learned that some of those local lawmakers are making personal calls and aggressive pleas to Steelman supporters to switch sides.

"It was like your pastor calling to ask why you weren't in church on Sunday," said one Steelman supporter who received several calls from different Hulshof backers. "They just say Sarah would be a weak candidate, but never said why. Then they go into everything under the sun Kenny has done, and they are totally convinced that Nixon is terrified of Kenny," said this Springfield Republican.

There are multiple theories about why the bigfoot Republicans don't like Steelman. Steelman's supporters will say it's because she can't -- and wouldn't be controlled by them. "They don't like her because they can't tell her what the do, and they can't push her out," said one at the state Republican convention on Saturday. You can point to some of Steelman's positions on issues as non-traditional for a Republican. There are examples of votes or stands she took as a state Senator that riled the G.O.P. leadership in Jefferson City. And when many of the top Republicans lined up behind George W. Bush back in 2000, the Steelman's ran John McCain's state campaign in Missouri.

Some argue the animosity can be tracked going all the way back to David Steelman's political career in 1978. Steelman was elected to the House in 1978 and became GOP leader at the age of 27, one of the youngest politicians in state history to hold the post. News accounts say that job often put him at odds with then Republican Gov. Kit Bond.

"I've seen him battle Bob Griffin one day and Kit Bond the next and never bat an eye," said Derek Holland of Lee's Summit, himself a former GOP House leader who served with Steelman, quoted in a Kansas City Star article in October 1992.

That year, Steelman handily defeated John Hall in the Republican primary for Attorney General. Hall, a former aide to Sen. John Danforth in Washington, was widely seen as the establishment choice at that time. Some Republicans cite Steelman's campaign as a thumb in the eye of the establishment. In a nasty general election against Jay Nixon, journalists categorized the Steelmans as a hard-core political family that plays hardball politics.

Whatever lies beneath the surface in the minds of the G.O.P. honchos, after this weekend in Branson, the Steelman campaign seems ready to embrace the title of underdog. While many Republicans privately scoffed at the Ron Paul supporters, Steelman reached out to them. And there are some indications the campaign may try to tap into the anger of the anti-establishment Paul backers and transfer it to Steelman's effort.

"They are claiming there are 900 Republicans in this room -- and I doubt there are even that many. And Ron Paul's people had 1300, maybe 1500. Those people may not like McCain, but they have to vote for somebody for Governor," suggested one Steelman backer close to the campaign.

Steelman's campaign can now argue that Hulshof's effort is being built top down, while hers is being run bottom up. And while Hulshof is well liked and known better among party convention goers, he's still undefined to a large portion of the Republican electorate -- especially in southwest Missouri. That makes the next decision an interesting one for the Steelman camp: Do they decide to go negative?

One supporter called to say, they should. "Tactically, we've got to define him before he defines himself. He's an unknown still. So you hit him, with Washington, Washington and and more Washington."

All of this only matters if Republicans feel like they have a real shot at unraveling Jay Nixon's path to the Governorship. In speaking with Democrats, it's hard to get a real solid feeling on who they would really, truly rather run against. The "Nixon is terrified of Kenny" line is being pushed by Hulshof supporters --- but in talking to several smart Democrats and political operatives, the feeling is that Hulshof might be more conventional opponent than Steelman. (And possibly easier to beat, in some Democrats eyes.)

Against Hulshof, you tie him to Bush. You tie him to Blunt. You pick apart the thousands of votes he's taken. And oh, you tie him to Bush again . . . and again. The ads almost write themselves. The campaign against Steelman may be more tricky, these Democratic politicos argue. She's less polarizing in many ways and she doesn't have that lengthy Washington record. Sure, you can try to tie her to Blunt. But if conservatives can't trust her -- the perception may be she's not a radioactive right-wing Republican. (Even though her record is pretty conservative.) Plus, she's a woman. And that makes attacks and Jay Nixon's debate strategy a bit more complicated.

Steelman's challenge will be whether she can begin to engage Hulshof on her terms, and if not defeat him in a rhetorical debate about issues -- at least buck expectations, and try to match him.

Hulshof had a pretty good weekend in Branson. He is the chosen one, but that status also means he has bigger expectations to fill. As we kick off the 2-month summer stretch of this primary campaign, it's important to remember two things. One is that the media -- always searching for a new story -- can sour on a frontrunner quickly. Two is that, this year in politics -- we've learned to expect the unexpected.

If you missed Saturday's KY3 coverage of Hulshof & Steelman in the News @ 10, it's HERE.

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