The Missouri GOP’s annual conference this weekend showed a party divided over the two top Republican candidates for governor in 2016 — previewing a primary some worry could besmirch both contenders and help the only declared Democrat running for the office.
State Auditor Tom Schweich and former Missouri House Speaker and U.S. Attorney Catherine Hanaway spent Friday and Saturday wooing crowds and working to bolster support among hundreds of party activists at the gathering, which featured speakers including Missouri’s U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt and former presidential candidate Rick Santorum.
Former state Rep. Randy Asbury, who announced his candidacy Feb. 12, also spoke with fellow Republicans. But he’s far behind his competitors in fundraising. Both Hanaway and Schweich reported more than $1 million in the bank at the end of 2014.
The stakes are high for Republican success in 2016. A Republican governor, some legislative leaders have said, could clear the path for state lawmakers to enact policies previously vetoed by Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon, such as legislation that would bar union fees from being a condition of employment.
Although Missourians elected never-before-seen numbers of GOP members to the state House last election, the party has had less success in statewide elections.
Four of six statewide officeholders are Democrats, including Attorney General Chris Koster, who’s running in 2016 to replace Nixon and currently faces no primary challenger.
That could put Republicans at a disadvantage.
Although party members say a primary could help hone a candidate before facing Koster, a GOP face-off could also open the door for internal strife and potentially damaging campaigning by Schweich and Hanaway.
“I think there’s going to be negative mud-slinging,” said Zoe Soto-Gilbert, vice chair of the Republican National Hispanic Assembly of Missouri. “It does, unfortunately, divide.”
Republicans faced a similar scenario in 2008, when GOP Gov. Matt Blunt decided not to seek re-election. Nixon, then the attorney general, was unopposed for the Democratic nomination while Republicans endured a contentious primary between then-State Treasurer Sarah Steelman and then-U.S. Rep. Kenny Hulshof. Nixon easily defeated Hulshof in the general election.
Tensions between Schweich and Hanaway arose almost immediately when Schweich knocked Hanaway during his announcement for candidacy Jan. 28, citing the $900,000 in donations she’s received directly from Rex Sinquefield, the state’s most prominent political donor.
Schweich also has taken six-figure checks from supporters, but not as much from a single source.
Both candidates avoided taking shots at each other at the weekend gathering.
“It’s really important that we stay focused on what Missourians care about, and that’s our vision for how to make the state better,” Hanaway said, although her campaign previously accused Schweich of putting his personal pursuits ahead of the good of the Republican Party.
Schweich called it “a time for all of us to be together, and you won’t be hearing me talk about any of that.”
But even as U.S. Rep. Jason Smith of Missouri called on the GOP during a Friday dinner to join together to elect a Republican governor, banners behind him touting Schweich and Hanaway served as a reminder of their impending clash.
“Republicans tend to like to fight each other more than we like to help each other,” Smith said, as Schweich and Hanaway dined in front of him, parallel but on opposite sides of the aisle. “We can’t do that.”