2008: A year of political surprises in Missouri

Missouri’s presidential bellwether streak came to an end in 2008. The Show-Me State had voted for the victor in every U.S. presidential election save one since 1904. Now it appears that Missouri picks the winner with exceptions only every 52 years (1956 and 2008).

That was just one of several surprises in the state’s political year. One of the biggest political shockers in this state located in America’s heartland was Gov. Matt Blunt’s announcement late in January that he would not seek re-election. The young Republican governor’s decision set a number of things in motion. The state GOP had to scramble to find a candidate to face eventual winner Democrat Jay Nixon for the governor’s mansion. Ninth District U.S. Congressman Kenny Hulshof of Columbia became the sacrificial lamb (Nixon had a huge lead in the polls at the time of Blunt’s announcement), choosing to forgo a reelection bid for his House seat. Also changing plans was State Treasurer Sarah Steelman, who dropped her own reelection effort to unsuccessfully take on Hulsof in the GOP gubernatorial primary.

Another major astonishment, Missouri style, was Republican Kurt Schaefer’s narrow victory over Democrat incumbent Chuck Graham for the State Senate. That particular district includes the city of Columbia, home of the University of Missouri and one of the most liberal areas in the state. Schaefer will be the first Republican in decades to represent Boone County in the Missouri Senate. In what was otherwise a terrible year for the GOP, Republicans lost only three seats in the Missouri House and actually gained three in the State Senate. Democrats did capture the offices of Governor, Attorney General and State Treasurer, but these were open seats with no GOP incumbent running.

Also causing a major buzz in Missouri was the creation of the so-called “Obama Truth Squad.” Conservatives were quick to rename the formation of Obama-suipporting county and city sherrifs and attorneys “Obama Goon Squads” for their threats to bring criminal libel charges against anyone making what the squads called false criticisms of the then-candidate for president. Missouri blogger Jim Hoft at Gateway Pundit was all over the story, as was Glenn Reynolds at Instapundit. In light of the now-notorious Blagogate scandal, it was an early preview of politics “the Chicago way.”

It was expected that then-candidate Barack Obama would draw a large crowd in St. Louis, long a Democrat party stronghold, and he did. An estimated 100,000 showed up to see and hear the eventual winner of the presidential election in the wide open spaces surrounding the Gateway Arch.

What was not expected was that a vice presidential candidate would draw crowds of any appreciable size, much less the enthusiastic supporters who turned out for Sarah Palin. She was a Missouri phenomenon in such locations as Springfield, Cape Girardeau, and at the Capitol in Jefferson City. But the biggest surprise to all but her staunchest Missouri supporters was her performance in the vice presidential debate in St. Louis. As Politico’s Roger Simon described it, “Sarah Palin was supposed to fall off the stage at her vice presidential debate Thursday evening. Instead, she ended up dominating it.” Also surprising was the record TV audience of over 70 Million that tuned into the debate held on the campus of Washington University in the Gateway City.

What became a political story of sorts was the sale of the largest brewer in the U.S. to a foreign company. Anheuser-Busch, headquartered in St. Louis and an an American icon, with it’s famous Clydesdales and Busch Gardens theme parks, was taken over by Belgian brewer InBev SA in July. A grassroots effort to keep the company, Brewers of the Budweiser, Bush and Michelob brands, an American company.

And in what was perhaps a preview of bad things to come, the General Motors assembly plant in Wentzville, just ten miles west of Kansas City, was closed for two months in the spring of 2008 because of a strike at GM supplier American Axle. Now, with GM struggling to stay alive and depending on government assistance, the last thing on the UAW workers want to do is go on strike. Many are wondering if they will even be able to keep their jobs. Missouri is heavily invested in the automotive industry. In addition to the Wentzville facility near Kansas City, the St. Louis area is home to a General Motors full-size van assembly plant and two Chrysler assembly plants. St. Louis is also home to more than 90 companies that make automotive products, including Harman/Becker, HBPO Group and Kelsey-Hayes, a subsidiary of TRW.

– JP