Sunday, August 10, 2008

The Primary Post-Mortem

It was suggested she get out.

Lincoln Days in Springfield was no ordinary party gala. Matt Blunt had called it quits. A 3-way field was emerging to replace him. But behind the scenes, the lines had been drawn. Kenny Hulshof was next in line. Peter Kinder would be taken care of, but would have to step aside. Sarah Steelman? She'd make a great second-term Treasurer.

But someone had to talk to her. An influential Springfield Republican made the move, according to a source who has knowledge about the encounter. The G.O.P. stalwart didn't approach the Steelmans themselves, the way the tale is told. He went to a loyal supporter. "So, somebody's got to talk to Sarah. You going to talk to her?," he asked the supporter. "I'm not going to . . ," came the polite, but clear reply. It's unclear if a formal appeal was ever made by party honchos for Steelman to end her campaign. But the insinuation, and assumption was reverberating through the rooms at University Plaza.

She'd get out. Give her a few weeks, or even a couple days. Once she stared the odds in the mirror, she'd exit gracefully but dutifully.

Of course, she didn't. And six months, several earmarks, and an ethanol mandate repeal later -- Steelman came within striking difference of upending the Republican establishment's prized horse and jolting the party onto a new course.

Kenny Hulshof emerged victorious, but not without breaking a sweat. Steelman controlled the message and tone of the campaign. And by most indications, Hulshof began his campaign with a lead that shrunk by the week. Some Republicans think without heavy assists from Sen. Kit Bond and Congressman Roy Blunt, Steelman would be the nominee. "Clearly Sarah closed the gap on Kenny over the last month. And there's no question, without Roy Blunt, Kit Bond and the party's financial resources, Kenny would have fell way short," said one Springfield Republican, who agreed to give his unvetted thoughts in exchange for anonymity.

Steelman's campaign strategist Jeff Roe puts it this way: "We had a structural disadvantage, but you have those in any campaign. We were outspent by $500,000. I'm not whining about it. Kenny won, it's just real. But fundraising is where it hurts most. It's an act against the machine if you give to a candidate they don't support."

Endorsements though, can be double-edged sword. Any politician would rather have an endorsement than not. But when Roy Blunt's staffer Burson Snyder said last week that her boss gave Hulshof a bounce, livid Steelman supporters lit up my phone and e-mail inbox.

"Roy gave him a financial edge, but he didn't give him a bounce," said one. "Kenny's own internal polls had him up in southwest Missouri a few months ago -- and she won southwest Missouri."

"I am not happy about the attitude of Hulshof's campaign in the recent blog," wrote Steelman supporter Charity Davis. "Hulshof will not have my vote and neither will Blunt. I vote for principle over party."

Even Hulshof campaign manager John Hancock acknowledged that the endorsements carry some negatives. "Are they unmitigated 100% benefits? No, because everybody in politics has detractors," he said.

Hulshof ran as the organizational Republican; Steelman ran as the renegade and he won. But Hancock believes the pivotal point in the campaign from a strategic perspective was the Steelman camp's venture into Kansas City. "They ran three weeks of television ads there free and clear with no Hulshof influence. They spent $260,000. Then they went dark for a period. Tactically, we ceded Kansas City. And I believe if we followed them to Kansas City and met them on that battleground, we would've lost the election," Hancock explained. With limited resources, the Hulshof camp felt the number of votes in Kansas City wasn't worth the money.

Steelman went on to win the Kansas City media market (about 17% of the primary electorate) by about 20 percentage points, but Roe points to southeast and mid-Missouri as the regions that swallowed his candidate. "We had hoped to lose there by 30 or 40 points, instead we lost by 50. We lost well beyond our expectations there," Roe said.

When asked why he didn't decide to place more media in mid-Missouri to try to limit Hulshof's margins, Roe explained that those voters decided early on. "It's hard to move them. The battle for undecideds was in Kansas City, Springfield and St. Louis. And when 400,000 people turnout, it's just not enough. Clearly, something was moving. But to be honest, with 400,000, it was interesting it was within even four," Roe said.

On that point, Hancock begrudgingly seems to agree: "It was closer than it could have been."

Hancock said he had always planned it would be close. The voter-model he put together in March had Hulshof prevailing by a mere 5,800 votes statewide. And despite Hulshof's advantages within the establishment, Hancock said the Congressman also had obstacles. "His net name I.D. among Republicans statewide was 26 percent when this thing started. That means 74 percent of Republicans had never heard of Kenny Hulshof. And I bet 100% of her voters voted for Sarah Steelman for State Treasurer before, and a large percentage probably voted for her twice (once for Senator, once for Treasurer). This was Kenny Hulshof's first statewide election victory, so I'm just gratified we won," Hancock said.

It is widely believed that most of the Steelman voters will fall in line and end up voting for Hulshof. But there is a small, but fervent and influential contingent of Steelman backers whose feelings remain raw. There are those who believe Steelman had a better message, became a stronger candidate and would have provided a tougher contrast for Jay Nixon.

"The party held down the better candidate. They did everything they could to defeat the better candidate, a candidate who they couldn't control, and they did defeat her -- but barely," said one supporter.

"Ninety-five percent of Steelman voters will become Hulshof voters," Hancock responded. "Republicans and conservatives, without a question, are going to vote for Kenny Hulshof over Jay Nixon. Kenny will win southwest Missouri, and he'll win it handily," he added.

While Steelman set up some of the attacks against Hulshof, she also provided a warm-up for what is to come. Take away the occasional crackle in her voice when she speaks -- and replace her oratorical skills with say, Claire McCaskill's -- and Steelman would be a true force to be reckoned with. But in losing, (assuming she officially endorses Hulshof) Steelman burnished her own political career and helped her rival.

We can and will debate about how effective Steelman was at exposing Hulshof's vulnerabilites. We can wonder if something she said about him will end up in a Jay Nixon television ad. But if Sarah Steelman wasn't around, Hulshof would be less tested at responding to attacks and articulating his own positions. He would not have visited as many towns, and shook as many hands. He would not have been on the front pages of newspapers or on the evening newscasts as frequently. And many fewer people would know who Kenny Hulshof even is -- or how to say his name.

Even Hancock said the primary was helpful. "Without it, we'd be much less equipped to run a general election. Now we're up and running, ready to go," he said of the contest.

Maybe next time, this will be mentioned to the party honchos at University Plaza -- before they figure out how to clear the field to pave the way for the next in line.

When all is weighed, this primary campaign helped Kenny Hulshof more than it hurt him -- and the Republican establishment has Sarah Steelman to thank for that.


1 comment:

wulybugr said...

Let us face facts: It was toptally unethical for the MOGOP to endirse Hulchof prior to the primary. The MOGOP will be to blame for Nixon's victory this fall. Steelman would have won. Many many Republicans felt this was the final straw that moved them away from Republicans. These folks will not vote Democrat, but will probably not vote for a Governor race. The MOGOP did the same thing 4 years ago to Jack Jackson,when they sold him out.
If the Republicans could ever get it together, They would be leaders in all races.

Eddie Simpson