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Blunt Flexes Muscle at Home

House Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) is expected to endorse Rep. Kenny Hulshof (R) in the Missouri gubernatorial race soon, likely lending his crucial regional political muscle to his House colleague four years after Hulshof quietly deferred to the House leader’s son in the gubernatorial race.

“[Blunt] asked Kenny to step aside in 2004,” a Missouri Republican operative said. “I don’t think [Hulshof] thought it would come this soon or in a primary, but it has, and at some point he’ll go with Kenny.”

Missouri Republicans claim that Hulshof’s stockpiled goodwill with the Minority Whip, coupled with a potentially tough election year for Republicans up and down the ticket, are setting the stage for a rare pre-primary nod from Blunt, whose conservative turnout machine in southwest Missouri is considered a crucial GOP get in statewide races.

Missouri’s one-month primary filing period opens today, and Hulshof and state Treasurer Sarah Steelman are considered early GOP frontrunners to replace first-term Gov. Matt Blunt (R), who recently said he will not run again in November.

The Republican primary winner will face state Attorney General Jay Nixon, who is expected to run unopposed in the Aug. 5 Democratic primary.

The elder Blunt’s office denied that he is involved in this year’s gubernatorial race, or that he will make a pre-primary endorsement, but numerous well-placed Republican sources throughout the state claim Blunt is playing a pivotal behind-the-scenes role in shaping the Republican field, starting with his apparent pleas with Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder (R) to discontinue his bid.

Hulshof’s office also declined to speak with Roll Call regarding a possible endorsement, or what it may mean for his campaign. Still, Missouri Republican operatives suggest Blunt’s likely backing ahead of this summer’s primary would hand Hulshof a big gift. Blunt has routinely won his sturdy GOP district with big margins; it is Missouri’s most conservative district, where 67 percent of voters picked President Bush in 2004.

A Blunt endorsement “has a major impact,” a Republican source said. “If you’re in a primary and you’re pretty well splitting the votes everywhere else, taking southwest Missouri — where seven out of 10 voters are Republicans — particularly in a primary is very important.”

A native of southwest Missouri, Blunt’s current role as regional GOP kingmaker originates with his ill-fated primary run in 1992’s gubernatorial race. Already an eight-year statewide office-holder by that time (he was secretary of state), Blunt began working GOP activists door-to-door, precinct-by-precinct on his home turf in southwest Missouri, a Republican source said.

“A long time before Ken Mehlman and Karl Rove learned how to get the Republican Party to turn out, [Blunt] was doing that in southwest Missouri — and not just county coordinators, but precinct coordinators,” a state Republican operative said.

Blunt won his current seat four years later using his earlier political team and contacts, which one GOP operative characterized as “the best anyone had seen in our state in a Congressional seat.”

Since then, Blunt quickly ascended through the House Republican leadership and Missouri’s political hierarchy. St. Louis-based Republican consultant John Hancock, who runs Hulshof’s gubernatorial campaign, said Sen. Kit Bond (R-Mo.) and Blunt — a prolific fundraiser who another Republican characterized as “involved as day-to-day as a Member can [be, but] does not tend to overstep his bounds” — have been instrumental in making the GOP again relevant statewide.

“A decade ago, Missouri Republicans were almost immaterial,” Hancock said. “The success of the party during the last 10 years is due largely to the leadership of Roy Blunt and Sen. Kit Bond.”

Bond, considered Missouri’s statesman emeritus, will not endorse Hulshof or any other Republican before the primary, according to his office.

Hulshof’s gubernatorial run this year is the third time in four years the lawmaker has tried to leave Washington, D.C., for a higher-profile role back home. Last year, Hulshof was short-listed for president of the University of Missouri, but was passed over. Ahead of the 2004 gubernatorial race, Hulshof was courted heavily by party activists, but dropped out after Blunt and other GOP higher-ups made their case.

“There was a big push to get Kenny Hulshof to run. He’s from southeast Missouri, he represents northeast Missouri, which gives you a lot of connectivity,” a Republican source said. “What the Blunt people figured out very quickly was that the organization that had helped Roy win his Congressional seat and helped his son in 2000 win secretary of state was such a viable force and could deliver such votes in a Republican primary that basically Kenny got pushed aside.”

In addition to political considerations, Blunt and Hulshof’s decade together in Congress undoubtedly factors into the ongoing endorsement considerations, state Republicans say. Hulshof’s seat on the House Ways and Means panel, too, could be a major general election selling point in a state recovering from a budget crunch.

“Kenny knows a lot about tax issues,” a Republican source in the state said.

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