Gizzi on Politics: February 4-8

A Kinder Missouri GOP?

“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 the morning of January 23, Missouri Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder summarized the dramatic change in Missouri politics that had occurred the previous night. 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 opening and declared for the top post.

At this time, Missouri pundits and pols are still mystified over Blunt’s surprise retirement. Rated as the best governor by the libertarian Cato Institute (and one of the 10 most conservative governors by Human Events), the son of House GOP Whip Roy Blunt (Mo.) was considered a superstar by many Missourians, a man destined for a long political career. However, his questionable firing of a longtime aide and the fact that he often seemed uncomfortable in the public eye worked against Blunt. The most recent polls showed him trailing likely Democratic nominee, State Atty. Gen. 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 by Reaganauts as “the Springfield massacre.” Kinder ran the initial race of 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 by Democratic Gov. Mel Carnahan of a ban on state funding of partial-birth abortion, Kinder became president of the senate in ‘01 when Republicans took control after 53 years. He was also one of the early sponsors of conceal-and-carry measures that eventually became law when the legislature overrode then-Democratic Gov. Bob Holden’s veto of them in ’03. Then, in ’04, Kinder was elected the second-highest official in the state.

A Democratic Nixon

Last week, after he yielded his gavel as presiding officer of the senate, Kinder called me back to talk (in between funding-raising calls of course) about the latest developments. Noting he spent his adult life promoting conservative causes and candidates, the lieutenant governor told me he would “present a vigorous contrast to the likely Democratic nominee.” Jay Nixon, Kinder said, backs state funding of abortion and is heavily supported 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 Nixon has been the Show-Me State’s top law enforcement officer for 16 years (“the eternal general”), Kinder also pointed out that the Democrat has twice run for the U.S. Senate and lost both times. Said Kinder, “There seems to be an aversion to promoting [Nixon] to a higher office than the one he holds.”

When we spoke two weeks ago, Kinder told me, “I’m in and running, and I don’t know about anybody else on the Republican side.” Since then, State Treasurer Sarah Steelman, who announced for re-election three hours before Blunt announced his retirement, suddenly switched to a race for governor. Sarah is the wife of former State Rep. David Steelman and daughter-in-law of late State GOP Chairman Dorman L. Steelman, both much-respected conservatives. However, the state treasurer herself, who helped run John McCain’s 2000 presidential bid in Missouri, is considered more of a moderate GOPer. A third candidate is Rep. Kenny Hulshof (lifetime American Conservative Union rating:
90%). The 49-year-old Hulsoff clearly wants out of Washington, as his bid to become president of the University of Missouri last year demonstrated. However, his decision to run was somewhat surprising—with three more senior Republicans on the House Ways and Means Committee retiring this year, the Missouri man would have been fifth-ranking GOP member on the powerful tax-writing panel.

For now, in terms of name recognition, organization, and early movement, Kinder is ahead in a big way.

Weldon Won’t Stay a Doctor in the House

Retirements of House Republicans are coming fast and furious these days. Two weeks ago, Rep. Dave Weldon (R.-Fla.), one of the diminishing number of Republicans in the famed “Gingrich class” that came to Congress when the GOP won control in 1994, announced that he would not seek re-election in ‘08. At 54 and one of the few physicians in Congress, Weldon (lifetime American Conservative Union rating: 93%) told reporters he wanted to return to his medical practice.

Ever since coming to Congress as a freshman, Weldon has been known as an outspoken conservative. Whether the issue was the flat tax, school vouchers, a stronger defense or the 2nd Amendment, the physician-politician could be counted on for a conservative vote. If there were issues on which Weldon parted company with some modern conservatives, they were 1) his failure to live up to a three-term pledge and retire in 2000 and 2) his passionate support of spending on NASA and the space program. Cape Canaveral is part of his 15th District.

Easily one of the most well-rounded House members, Weldon served in the U.S. Army Medical Corps (and later as a reserve officer), played bass guitar in a band (The Second Amendments) a la Mike Huckabee, and even co-authored a science-fiction novel (Moongate) in which the hero is a Florida congressman who chairs the House Space Committee.

In a district where George W. Bush rolled up 57% of the vote in 2004, Weldon’s successor is very likely to be a Republican but one surely not as colorful. At this writing, conservative State Senators Bill Posey and Mike Haridopolos are both actively considering the race.

Democrats had hoped to make a major effort in the district they last held before Weldon’s election. But their first-tier candidate, retired Air Force Reserve Lt. Col. Paul Rancatore, abandoned the race for personal reasons. Former Brevard County Commissioner Nancy Higgs, also considered a strong possible Democratic contender, is likely to enter the race soon.

Steve King: The Last Thompsonite

Returning from Columbia, S.C., on the very early (6:30 am) flight the Sunday after the primary, I found myself talking with Rep. Steve King (R.-Iowa), who had just spent two days in South Carolina campaigning for his presidential favorite, former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson.

Thompson, of course, didn’t win and barely edged former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney out for third place. Within 48 hours, he was out of the race. Like many grass-roots “Fredheads,” King made it clear he wanted Thompson to stay in and fight. The Iowa lawmaker did say he spoke to the presidential hopeful after his remarks to supporters at the election night party, but it “wasn’t the time or place to discuss whether he would stay or get out of the race.”

One of the House members most closely identified with the issue of illegal immigration, King said he backed and campaigned hard for Thompson in part because “Fred Thompson was, among all the Republicans, the most consistent on the issue of illegal immigration. He opposed the comprehensive immigration package backed by the President and Sen. McCain and he endorsed border security first,” said King. “And as for that Republican pollster [Whit Ayres, who appeared as a guest commentator on Fox News on primary night] who said illegal immigration was the most important issue to only 25% of the voters in Iowa, he obviously wasn’t talking to the same voters that I was.”

King also told me he had talked to several Republican operatives in Iowa about mounting a race against four-term Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin this year. “You’re talking about a $10-million campaign,” he said, “But we’re looking at it.”