With Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney on track to win Missouri and Sen. Claire McCaskill (D) struggling to win a second term in the Show Me State, the state's Democratic governor, Jay Nixon, is portraying himself as a moderate to win reelection.
Nixon, a former longtime state attorney general seeking his second term as governor, has positioned himself as a moderate in the Republican-trending state in his bid for a second term. Combined with his well-received work on disaster recovery, a weak Republican field and two decades in statewide office, experts agree that the race is Nixon's to lose. Nixon is being challenged by Republican Dave Spence in the November election.
"Governor Nixon is not a goofy a** liberal. He is not a liberal Democrat and he is not perceived as a liberal Democrat," Missouri State University political science professor George Connor told The Huffington Post. "Claire McCaskill may not be a liberal Democrat, but she is perceived as a liberal."
Polls have shown Nixon with a lead between 7 and 14 points over Spence, while at the same time Romney has a 7- to 10-point lead over Obama in the state. McCaskill has tightened her race against Republican Rep. Todd Akin in the wake of Akin's "legitimate rape" comments, but experts still see a road map for Akin to pull off a victory.
A key to Nixon's popularity has been his ability to distance himself from Obama, who has long been unpopular in Missouri. Former Missouri state Sen. Jeff Smith (D-St. Louis), now a professor at the New School in New York City, noted that McCaskill's support for Obama in the 2008 primary has hurt her in the state, while Nixon remained neutral in the race.
"Whether it's his views on gay marriage, immigration, or Medicaid expansion, Nixon is right in the center in the eyes of most Missourians, and not left-of-center where Obama is," Smith. "So Nixon's carefully calibrated views have made it pretty difficult to make that linkage."
Connor noted that Nixon has taken pains to distance himself from Obama, including rarely being photographed with the president. He said that in 2010, Missouri Secretary of State Robin Carnahan (D), then a U.S. Senate candidate, appeared alongside Obama at a Kansas City fundraiser, which produced photos that hurt her in the Senate race. Nixon avoided the event. Spence has tried to tie Obama and Nixon together recently, Connor said, but had to use images of the two in the aftermath of the tornado that devastated Joplin, Mo., for the images.
Nixon's work in Joplin is viewed as one of his strongest assets; experts agree it showed Nixon as a strong leader and helped him boost his appeal to Outstate (rural) Missourians.
"Better than just about any Democrat in recent memory," Smith said of Nixon's performance Outstate. "For instance, instead of losing by 20 percent in most of southwest Missouri as Obama and McCaskill likely will, Nixon will probably come close to breaking even. Based in part on his strong response to the Joplin tornado, he could even steal a couple of those conservative counties."
State Sen. Scott Rupp (R-Wentzville) and former state House Speaker Rod Jetton (R-Marble Hill) noted that Nixon's roots in rural Jefferson County will also help him Outstate. Nixon has portrayed himself as a rural Missourian, and has taken pro-gun and pro-hunting positions.
In his campaign, Nixon has played up the state's AAA bond rating and balanced budgets. Rupp said that Nixon has done a good job in playing up "good news."
Medicaid cuts, an issue that helped Nixon, hurt his Republican predecessor, Matt Blunt. Blunt's cuts helped seal his unpopularity and the Republican did not seek a second term in 2008. At the same time, Jetton and Smith note that the cuts helped create a budget situation and allowed Nixon to sail through the recession making fewer cuts.
"Democrats opposed it and campaigned against it, but I can't imagine how difficult the budget would've been the last couple years had it not happened," Smith said of Blunt's cuts. "Regardless of how one may feel about the cuts, the fact is that they gave Nixon's budgets some room that wouldn't have otherwise been there."
GOP disarray also has helped Nixon, Jetton and Rupp agreed. Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder (R) had been the GOP gubernatorial frontrunner until his downfall in a stripper scandal late last year . Spence entered the race late, but had early missteps including portraying his home economics degree as an economics degree.
"That is why you see Jay Nixon in a good spot, you had Republicans shooting themselves in the foot," Jetton said.
"At one point last November/December, we had no candidate for governor, lieutenant governor, treasurer or attorney general. At that point, we are behind the eight ball," Rupp said. "There was concern we did not have a farm team. Republicans need to grow a farm team."
While Nixon is likely to win, he is not expected to provide coattails to help other statewide candidates. Smith noted that Kinder easily won a second term as lieutenant governor in 2008 despite Nixon's 18-point win.
"The biggest problem for the Democrats is the declining Democratic base in the eastern part of the state," Connor said. "That will affect every Democrat, except Jay Nixon."