Missouri Politics Upended

“I’m just opening up the Senate.  Yes, I’m in.  Don’t know about the others.  Let me call you later.”

With those words to me Wednesday morning, Missouri’s Lieutenant Governor Peter Kinder summarized the dramatic change in Missouri politics that occurred overnight.  With the word that Gov. Matt Blunt — at 37, the nation’s second-youngest governor — would not seek re-election this year, the 52-year-old Kinder moved quickly to fill the gap and declared for the top post.

At this time, Missouri pundits and pols are still mystified over Blunt’s surprise exodus.  Rated as the best governor by the CATO Institute (and one of the ten most conservative governors by HUMAN EVENTS), the son of House GOP Whip Roy Blunt (Mo.) appeared to be a star and one destined for a long political career.  However, the questionable firing of a longtime aide and the fact that Blunt often seemed uncomfortable in the public eye worked against him.  The most recent polls showed him trailing likely Democratic nominee and State Attorney General Jay Nixon.

For his part, Cape Girardeau native Kinder has been in the conservative trenches since he was a senior in college in 1976 and was a delegate to the state GOP convention. That convention nominated an entire delegation favoring Ronald Reagan over Gerald Ford and is still remembered as “the Springfield massacre.”  Kinder ran the initial race of the late Rep. Bill Emerson (R.-Mo.), spent several years in publishing, and won a state senate seat in 1992.  Best known for leading the fight to override the veto of Democratic Gov. Mel Carnahan of a ban on state funding of partial birth abortion, Kinder became president of the senate when Republicans took control after 53 years.  In ’04, he became the second-highest elected official in state office.

When he yielded his gavel as presiding officer of the senate, Kinder called me back and talked (in between funding-raising calls of course).  Noting his adult life of promoting conservative causes and candidates, the lieutenant governor told me he would “present a vigorous contrast to the likely Democratic nominee”–Nixon, who, as Kinder noted, backs state funding of abortion and is heavily-backed by trial lawyers.  Even some conservatives who were disappointed with Blunt over his failure to oppose stem cell research in an ’06 statewide initiative have no such objection to Kinder, who took no stand on the initiative. 

Noting that Jay Nixon has been the Show-Me State’s top law enforcement officer for sixteen years (“the eternal general”), Kinder also pointed out that the Democrat has twice run for the U.S. Senate and lost both times.  In his words, “there seems to be an aversion to promoting [Nixon] to a higher office than the one he holds.” 

At this point, it is unclear whether Kinder will be opposed in the August primary.  “As I said, I’m in and running and I don’t know about anybody else on the Republican side,” he told me.  State Treasurer Sarah Steelman, who announced for re-election three hours before Blunt announced his retirement, and Rep. Kenny Hulshoff, are both considered potential candidates for governor.  But  in terms of name recognition, organization, and early movement, Kinder is ahead in a big way.