Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Hulshof Pivots to "The Character Issue"




The latest television ad by Kenny Hulshof's campaign is a clear signal that the Republican candidate for Governor is attempting to fight this battle on the issue of character. This is the second consecutive ad where Hulshof is raising questions about Jay Nixon's ethical core and trustworthiness.

It's a tact that's very similar to the current strategy of John McCain's campaign, which is raising issues about Barack Obama's past associations -- rather than focusing on "issues." Republicans have clearly calculated that fighting these races on "the issues," in the midst of financial turmoil, is not a winning strategy. It should be noted though, that while Nixon's relationships with trial attorneys and other interests may not be what voters are chatting about at the kitchen table and water cooler, they are certainly relevant points to raise in campaign for Governor. It's for voters to decide whether Nixon's decisions and associations are troubling or not. (They could also rationally conclude that they are troubling, but still think he's the better choice for Governor.)

The problem with the Hulshof strategy is that Nixon has been on Missouri's political stage much longer than Obama has been on the national stage. Voters have re-elected Nixon to the Attorney General office easily, cycle after cycle. Therefore, there is less of an "unknown" quality to him. He's not a mystery. Voters mostly know who Jay Nixon is, and are familiar with his background. Even casual observers connect him with cracking down on gas gougers, predatory lenders and annoying robo calls. Hulshof's attempt, in these waning days, is to re-define him as someone you can't trust. An unseemly character who champions "pay for play," politics. "Shakedown after Shakedown," as the ad goes.

The heart of their case is that as Attorney General, Nixon has too often crossed the ethical line. He investigated the Taum Sauk damn collapse, then took campaign contributions from some of the players involved. He awarded a big tobacco contract to prominent attorney Tom Strong, then took money from him for future political campaigns. These relationships need to be scrutinized --- but as it often goes, a direct quid pro quo, is almost always missing.

"Just because you have access, just because someone can get in the door to see you, doesn't mean you'll do anything they want," attorney Robert Palmer pointed out to me Monday. But Team Hulshof just wants to try to raise enough doubts, enough question-marks, that voters take pause, and maybe take another look before promoting Missouri's long-time Attorney General.


Nixon's latest ad is also a continued, but more consistent line of attack. The economy is in shambles, and it's Kenny Hulshof's fault. "Chaos on Wall Street . . . Foreclosures . . . Rising Prices . . . Unemployment . . ." All Hulshof's fault? Of course not. At every point and turn Nixon's admen are quick to note that Hulshof is a Congressman. But they never remind you that Democrats have controlled the Congress over the past two years. Does Democratic Rep. Barney Frank bare any responsibility for the way Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae were regulated and run? Any non-partisan observer would agree that there's enough blame to go around.

But here, all the fire is thrown at Hulshof. We could say it's unfair, but it's politics. Few rational voters will blame Hulshof for it all -- but many will connect him to Washington, and therefore as part of the problem. The Nixon camp has lists of votes to "back it up." Again, relevant. But the most pertinent? How does a vote on trade with China impact the decisions our next Governor will face directly? This economic slump may ultimately be the issue Hulshof can't overcome.

In this ad, the Nixon campaign accuses of Hulshof of saying Missouri's economy is in a good place. HERE's the entire context of what he said. "I'm saying that others have looked at our climate compared to other states and we're in a good place," Hulshof said to the KY3 Political Notebook on September 17th. So Nixon's claim is correct and fair game. But of course, it's more accurate to note that Hulshof was citing a Ball State study, that was praising Missouri's manufacturing "logistics."

In our emotional-driven environment, Hulshof may be penalized for his "good place," comments, but it would be more helpful for both candidates to specifically identify what problems occurred in Missouri, and debate about what needs to be done next. Hulshof has talked generically about a "workforce training problem," and Nixon has similarly stressed education initiatives. But both would serve voters well if they spoke more honestly and openly not only about the slugging manufacturing environment --- but what jobs Missouri is mostly likely able to attract -- what they would pay, and who could fill them.

Until then, enjoy the ads -- where it's all about a single Congressman getting tossed around in a bad economic environment against questions about our Attorney General's ethics.

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