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Capitol Perspectives: Missouri Political Comebacks

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Catherine Hanaway (photo credit: house.mo.gov)

Catherine Hanaway (photo credit: house.mo.gov)

Election Returns

Former House Speaker Catherine Hanaway’s statement that she’s considering running for Missouri governor reminds me of other major Missouri politicians who sought to return to elective office after years of absence.

Like some skeptics I’ve heard in the statehouse, I too first thought that Hanaway’s nearly nine-year absence from political office would be a liability.

But on further thought, I realized history might be encouraging for the Republican Hanaway whose last campaign was an unsuccessful bid for secretary of state in 2004.

In my time covering this process, there have been several who recovered from political rejection. In fact, two of Missouri’s most successful public officials in recent decades recovered not once, but twice after absences from the political scene.

One was Roy Blunt who lost his race for lieutenant governor in 1980. Four years later, however, he came back to become secretary of state.

After eight years in office, Blunt again found himself on the outside after losing the GOP primary for governor. He returned to private life, as a college administrator in southwest Missouri.

Then, a few years later, Blunt made his second comeback getting elected to Congress — a career path that put him into the U.S. Senate seat he now holds.

The other two-time comeback politician of my era is Mel Carnahan.

In 1965, in just his second term, he was elected by his colleagues to be the Democrat’s House majority leader. Despite that rapid rise to power, just two years later, Carnahan dropped out to return to private life.

By the time I started covering the statehouse, he was a forgotten man.

Yet, 14 years after leaving the pinnacles of state political leadership, Carnahan returned, winning election as state treasurer.

The office was not, however, a fast track for his political advancement. Four years later, he decisively lost the Democratic primary for governor. Without elective office, Carnahan returned to his law firm in Rolla where many of us figured he would end out his days.

So you can imagine my surprise when one day I got a phone call four yearslater from Carnahan telling me he was driving up from Rolla to file for lieutenant governor and asked me to tell reporters he’d be available in my office for questions.

Despite the informality of that campaign start, Carnahan won the race and, after four years as lieutenant governor, he wins the governorship.

As different in style and politics as Carnahan and Blunt were, there was a common element.

They both accomplished their comebacks in an era of far smaller campaign budgets. It was a time when a candidate did not need the visibility of statewide office to raise enough money to mount a credible campaign.

Both Blunt and Carnahan flourished in that lower campaign-budget era. Informal, accessible and comfortable in their own skins, they did not need a large, high-paid array of aids to tell them what to say.

They both eventually recruited teams of hard-nosed professional staff. But these two politicians could survive and thrive in the public arena on their own — as Carnahan demonstrated by making his official announcement in a simple, personal phone call.

While Carnahan and Blunt stand out as two-time comebacks, there are several others who have recovered from a political defeat. Kit Bond did it after his defeat for re-election as governor. Four years later, he came back to defeat the man who beat him, Joe Teasdale. And from there, Bond moved on to a long career in the U.S. Senate.

Bob Holden came back from defeat for state treasurer to win the office four years later and eventually moved on to the governor’s mansion. Missouri’s other U.S. senator, Claire McCaskill, won her U.S. Senate race just two years after losing a bid for governor.

There is, however, a long list of defeated candidates who never came back. Some gave up, but others kept trying.

Warren Hearnes was the first statewide official I covered who repeatedly failed to get back into public life.

He was one of the most successful governors in Missouri history, but federal criminal investigations into his administration created a cloud from which he never was able to recover.

Four years after leaving the governor’s chair, Hearnes undertook the first of three attempts to return to public office. He lost every time.

Another repeat loser was Wendell Bailey. At first, he was a comeback winner — elected state treasurer two years after his congressional district had been eliminated by redistricting.

But that was the end of line for the former Willow Springs auto dealer. He lost races for governor, lieutenant governor, Congress and even the state senate.

Bailey’s campaigns were some of the most entertaining I’ve covered. He got the nickname “Boom Boom Baily” because of what he called his “tub thumping” campaign in which he carried and banged a metal wash tub during some of his campaign appearances.

So, maybe informality and a low-budget campaign is not always a path to success.

As always, let me know (at column@mdn.org) if you have any comments. If you would like your comments, or a portion of them, included in a future column, let me know and be sure to include your full name in your email. Past columns are available at www.mdn.org/mpacol or here.

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