Gary Cook watched the August primary debate for Governor with great interest. He felt that Kenny Hulshof was a "smooth speaker," but saw Sarah Steelman as the candidate "with the knowledge of how to get the job done in Jefferson City."
Now, just over three weeks from the election, Cook, of Monett, says he'll support the Democrat, Jay Nixon. "Jay Nixon has proven to me in his years as attorney general that he is willing to cross party lines to help this state," says Cook.
But Cook won't be pulling the Democratic lever at the top of the ticket. He's also voting for John McCain for president. "It may seem like a paradox, but I am not a single issue voter and will cross party lines when necessary," he says.
Cook, who has traditional leanings, is splitting his ticket. But voters like Cook are also the key to explaining why Jay Nixon holds a solid lead over Republican Kenny Hulshof, while polls show Barack Obama and McCain locked in a dogfight.
Independents and a significant amount of Republicans are crossing parties to vote for Attorney General Nixon -- while sticking with McCain this year. Call them "The McNixicans."
Joe Albers, a conservative who has worked on Republican campaigns, says Nixon has done a better job of defining himself as "conservative." "Nixon has for the better part of the month been running ads that have labeled himself as a conservative, touting that fiscal conservatives and claiming Republicans are supporting him," says Albers, who is considering a run for a state House seat in Springfield.
He believes the Hulshof campaign has been slow to challenge Nixon's assertion. "In politics, as you know, perception is reality. If Nixon is perceived by more of the electorate to be conservative, guess what, he is conservative. McCain is more of an independent, or moderate Republican. Moderate Republicans are more inclined to come across party lines, because Nixon has done a better job of speaking to pocketbook issues," Albers says.
The Hulshof campaign even acknowledges that Nixon has been trying to "pass himself off as a conservative," and says it will try to show "that to be laughable" in the remaining weeks.
"The Jay Nixon you see on TV is an imposter," says Hulshof spokesperson Scott Baker. "He is a pro-abortion, anti-gun, high-taxing liberal. That isn't a political charge from Kenny Hulshof -- that's an accurate reflection of his record," says Baker.
But even Albers think the Hulshof campaign's attempt at redefining of Nixon may not work. "Can he do it successfully," Albers asks of Team Hulshof's strategy. "It might be too late for that."
Several Republicans contacted by the KY3 Political Notebook were reluctant to speak freely about their ticket-splitting, without the security of anonymity. One Springfield Republican who says he'll vote for Nixon and McCain believes that southwest Missouri won't produce the margins for Hulshof that he needs. "Hulshof isn't even coming close to the 'required' 60 to 65 percent vote in southwest Missouri," he says.
"Hulshof ought to spend the remaining four weeks campaigning only in southwest Missouri. He needs to look at Jim Talent's loss to Bob Holden in the 2000 race for Governor to be reminded just how important it is to win big in southwest Missouri. I suspect Hulshof can only hope to lose by such a slim margin," he adds.
Even some traditionally leaning Republican voters are still making up their mind on Hulshof. "I'm still undecided on Nixon," says Eric Naegler, president of Senior Recruiters, Inc. He favors Nixon's position on embryonic stem cell research, but agrees with Hulshof on free trade and regulation issues. But he's already decided on McCain. "I've read both parties national platforms and believe there is little responsibility involved in the Dems. It is very emotional filled and not very definitive," he says.
Hurley's Janet Melton another traditional conservative, leaning against Hulshof. "I am not pro-abortion, on the other hand, I do view Hulshof as part of our problem coming from Washington," Melton says. "This is a really hard decision. I will continue to read, listen and watch the two," she says, quickly adding, "maybe Nixon?"
Then there are the loyal supporters of Sarah Steelman, who are still not over the primary and believe establishment Republicans should be punished for their decision to back Hulshof. Charity Davis says she will be voting third party. "It was a hard decision as a Republican what to do in this election. I have decided to be an American and for independence and principle," she says.
Even many Democrats believe Steelman would have been a tougher opponent for Nixon, and the Nixon campaign has been actively trying to tap into that anti-establishment discontent. "As we learned in the August primary, it's not just Democrats who want change in Missouri. There are a whole lot of Republicans who went to the polls and voted against Congressman Hulshof," says Nixon spokesperson Oren Shur.
Albers and others also believe an anti-establishment backlash within the Republican party could hurt Hulshof's chances. "After Matt Blunt, people who identify as very conservative, are reluctant to support Hulshof. Their candidate was Steelman (and she) defined herself as one in the primary. I sense there is a backlash building against the Blunts. A lot of conservatives, have been growing in numbers, upset with the Blunt's after they got involved in the primary. Hulshof is the establishment pick. There is growing resentment in this kind of election year against the establishment," says Albers.
Another Republican puts it this way: "I think it is fair to say that Hulshof's closeness to Governor Blunt and Congressman Blunt is hurting him. The Blunt Fatigue is hard to overcome."
What might be most worrisome to the Hulshof campaign is that even some of the most dedicated Republicans are questioning whether their candidate can win. A Republican who volunteered to help with phone-banking for G.O.P. candidates in Greene County recently told the Notebook that "50 to 60 percent of the calls made were coming back for Nixon." "I couldn't believe it, this is Greene County. They are for McCain, and for Nixon," says the volunteer in her twenties.
"It makes me question myself. I really don't know much about Hulshof, should I be voting for Nixon," she asks.
Cook says even usually partisan Missourians have the capability of quietly splitting their tickets in volatile election years. "Look at the polls. Most have McCain up by (a few) points or so in the state, yet Nixon leads by 12," he says. "Missourians aren't stupid. We are the 'Show-Me' state for a reason. I watched Hulshof debate his ideals in the primary, and I didn't like what he 'showed-me.'"