War Erupts in Twain Country

Tough Primaries for Open Seat

Posted July 25, 2008 at 6:09pm

MACON, Mo. — If native son Mark Twain designed the set, legendary Republican henchman Lee Atwater wrote the script.

While GOP primary candidates readied themselves to deliver their well-worn stump speeches less than three weeks from the Aug. 5 primary, dozens of local conservative diehards mingled on the courthouse green here early one recent evening. Baked goods were stacked for a later auction and children stampeded on the vast lawn.

But by night’s end, the otherwise Twainsian scene — located just an hour west of Samuel Clemens’ birthplace — twice nearly erupted into madness. As the cattle call for Republicans seeking the open 9th district seat got under way, Alan Wyatt, a Republican county commissioner, allegedly assaulted a state Democratic Party videographer. And Lisle Moore, the husband of candidate state Rep. Danie Moore (R), cornered the young Democratic hand and threatened to beat him up, as the last of the auctioned pies found new homes.

“Did you film my wife, Danie Moore?” Lisle Moore, a local bail bondsman and gun dealer, said to the videographer. “Because if you ever do it without my permission, I’m going to kick your ass.”

(Moore later lunged for a Roll Call reporter who took a photograph of the escalating confrontation.)

Although decidedly less aggressive than Moore or Wyatt, many Republicans in retiring Rep. Kenny Hulshof’s (R) district agree that there is widespread frustration with the November ticket and the party’s direction this year. And they are readying themselves for a less-than-ideal political environment in which the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is planning to put 50 GOP House seats in play.

Making matters worse, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.), is opening at least one campaign office in Hulshof’s district, in Pike County, and his Missouri strategy will include running up the score not only in urban centers, but in collegiate-heavy central Missouri and traditionally Dixiecrat Mississippi River towns — all of which are located in the 9th district.

President Bush won the vast, northeastern Missouri district with 59 percent of the vote four years ago, and Congressional Republicans have controlled it comfortably since Hulshof knocked off conservative 10-term Rep. Harold Volkmer (D) in 1996.

Rick Shoemaker, a Republican who attended the recent candidate forum at the courthouse and owns a Sinclair gas station nearby, considers himself “right in the middle of the energy debate.” Shoemaker said former state tourism director Blaine Luetkemeyer (R) is the strongest candidate to replace Hulshof and that he will vote for presumptive Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), although he “wasn’t my first choice.”

Shoemaker also is preparing himself for the worst for Hulshof’s district come Election Day.

“This district can swing either way,” he said.

Bread-and-Butter Issues

In interviews during the candidate forum, Luetkemeyer and state Rep. Bob Onder, the two self-funding Republican frontrunners, said skyrocketing energy costs are far-and-away the No. 1 issue in rural areas of the district, where it’s not uncommon for voters to drive a dozen miles or more to buy a loaf of bread or a gallon of milk.

And once 9th district voters actually arrive at the grocery store, the candidates said, they are greeted with high prices for bread, milk and other staples impacted by the high costs of diesel fuel, fertilizer and animal feed.

A Missouri Farm Bureau survey out earlier this year showed state residents were paying about 5 percent more for a typical basket of groceries in the first three months of this year than they did in the first quarter of 2007.

“As you travel around this district, what most people talk about are gas prices,” Luetkemeyer said. “It is basically underpinning the inflationary trend of our entire economy.”

Rep. Jo Ann Emerson (R-Mo.), who represents a similar massive rural swath in the southeastern part of the state, said in an interview last week that the two candidates are wise to concentrate on what likely is voters’ top concern: energy costs. She also said that by sticking to gas prices and other kitchen-table issues — and avoiding wedge issues such as gay marriage and abortion — the frontrunners likely will avoid cannibalizing their party’s chances in November.

“They have to talk about the issues that are important to their constituents,” Emerson said. “Not what’s important to them.”

GOP concerns over defending the district also have made their way back to Washington, D.C., particularly because the political wing of anti-tax crusaders the Club for Growth has cast its lot with Onder, whose stances on some issues one lawmaker called “a bit extreme.”

Retiring Rep. Tom Davis (Va.), who twice chaired the National Republican Congressional Committee, said that while Twain’s former stomping grounds are Republican territory, “in this environment, you take nothing for granted.” Davis also said the Club for Growth’s involvement is worrisome because it disrupts the natural chemistry of a primary, a common gripe among GOP lawmakers.

“You get nervous when the club comes in,” Davis said. “Their nickname is the ‘Club for Democratic Growth.’”

In an interview, Onder said the major difference between him and the rest of the GOP field is that he is a “pro-life advocate” and “more likely to be a pro-life leader,” if elected. And if he wins the primary, Onder also said his general election media strategy “absolutely” would be to go negative on Obama and a Congress led by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

“I think there’s a big contrast between me and the top of the Democrats’ ticket,” Onder said. “Obama has proposed a number of tax increases [and] he’s pro-abortion and anti-gun.”

Nate Walker, a former Republican state legislator from the area who also attended the candidate forum, would not disclose which of the two primary frontrunners he is supporting, but said he “can make a strong case for both of them.” Walker also said he is worried about his party’s chances statewide in November because “Democrats are going to get a lot of votes because Republicans forgot the fundamental values of being thrifty.”

‘They’re Not Southern Democrats’

But despite Republican caution and Democratic optimism, Democrats in the 9th district have some worries of their own. Among them: EMILY’s List has taken sides in the four-way primary, endorsing state Rep. Judy Baker (D) in June. Baker, who was initially encouraged to challenge Hulshof this cycle by Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), said the abortion rights group has sent out one fundraising mailing to its supporters on her behalf so far.

Some Democrats privately fear that the influence of the liberal group could torpedo their prospects in the general election. McCaskill lost the 9th district last cycle to then-incumbent Sen. Jim Talent (R), 54 percent to 46 percent.

About 100 miles east of the GOP donnybrook the night before, Baker, former state Speaker Steve Gaw (D), ex-state Sen. Ken Jacobs (D) and Marion County Commissioner Lyndon Bode (D) held a candidate forum at a fish fry and pie auction in the Pike County river town of Louisiana.

Just as Obama is relying on Louisiana, Hannibal and other tourism-heavy Mississippi River towns that mine their livelihoods on the Twain mystique, the Democratic Congressional nominee must also do well in these communities to win Hulshof’s district.

Jim Ross, a Missouri political consultant who attended the candidate forum at the American Legion hall, said the district is divided in two — urban and rural — and that female voters likely will be the deciding factor come November. Although he also said most district Democrats are conservative, they’re not single-issue voters like in many parts of the South.

“They’re conservative Democrats, but they’re not Southern Democrats,” Ross said. “They’re rural Democrats, [but] they’re not Christian Coalition” voters.

Ross’ characterizations of northeastern district voters also appeared to play out last cycle, when McCaskill did about the same or better in the counties of Pike and Ralls, which takes in sections of Hannibal, than she did district-wide. And the Obama campaign’s decision to de-camp in Pike County is not arbitrary: McCaskill won the county last cycle with 50 percent of the vote.

Baker, who bears a faint resemblance to a young Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, is banking on running up the score in her backyard of Columbia, a liberal town home to the University of Missouri and two smaller colleges. A political newcomer, Baker campaigns as an outsider, banking on her career in the private sector and a throw-the-bums-out cycle to win. And she undoubtedly hopes voters will think to include Gaw, the former state Speaker and her main primary opponent, in that group of bums.

Although green on the stump, Baker in an interview after the candidate forum came across as measured and disciplined. She’s paired her EMILY’s List endorsement with what she said is her strong support for the Second Amendment, and emphasizes her minister husband, who makes it “tough to put some of these liberal labels on me.”

And whereas in years past Republicans in House districts have leaned on wedge issues for a bump, Baker said few voters are listening in 2008 — even in GOP districts.

“I’ve been talking about what people care about — the war, health care and the economy,” Baker said. “We have a deficit, we have a tanking economy. … Republicans could kind of make hay out of [social issues in the past], but this is not what people are concerned about.”

Farm Boy

Unlike Baker, Gaw is fiery orator who considers himself the natural heir to Volkmer, a nationally renowned gun-rights advocate. And the former state Speaker looks the part as he fans out across the district, donning blue jeans and Western-style work boots at the Friday evening fish fry.

Despite a promising profile and access to donors from his years in leadership, however, Gaw has been slow to raise money and quick to spend it. Through the middle of July, Gaw had raised about $107,000 and had about $40,000 in cash on hand, while Baker had raised about $185,000 and had about $140,000 on hand.

Gaw also shared his views on the presidential race, saying that Obama “is going to have to spend time” in Pike County to win the district — and perhaps raise all Democratic boats in the process. He said former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) had strong support in the district, but whether his supporters ultimately will migrate to Obama or McCain — or just stay home — is uncertain.

Although Gaw said Democrats will do well in the district regardless of who wins the primary, nominating a candidate without strong rural ties — namely Baker — “only adds to the risks of losing.”

“I grew up in this district on a farm,” Gaw said. “If you want to win this district, you have to have someone who has those ties, who knows what’s going on out here.”