Downticket candidates pay to be heard
Remember Al Hanson? He's the fellow who upset the establishment candidate, St. Louis lawyer Jay Kanzler, in the August 2002 Republican primary for state auditor.
Hanson won easily, 65 percent to 35 percent, despite Kanzler's support from GOP stalwarts like Sen. Kit Bond and former Sen. Jack Danforth and even though Hanson was outspent 100 to 1. About all he had going for him was being listed first on the ballot and an endorsement from Missouri Right to Life.
There's one more thing you should know about Hanson: He is a convicted felon. In 1978, he was found guilty of theft by swindle in Minnesota and served nine months in prison.
Why did more than 233,000 Missourians vote for a felon to be state auditor? The flip reply might be it takes a thief to find one but the much more probable answer is that they did not know. The media did not mention it much. The Post-Dispatch only referred to it once in the pre-election coverage and then just in passing.
The Hanson incident illustrates the challenges of running in a down-ticket race, one below president, U.S. senator or governor. Other than a voters' guide, a candidate will be lucky to have more than scant print coverage and essentially almost no local television exposure except for paid advertisements.
In Missouri this year, three of the statewide offices have competitive races: lieutenant governor (Republican incumbent Peter Kinder versus state Democratic Rep. Sam Page), attorney general (Republican state Sen. Michael Gibbons versus Democratic state Sen. Chris Koster), and treasurer (Republican state Sen. Brad Lager versus Democratic state Rep. Clint Zweifel).
These offices all carry important responsibilities. The attorney general is the state's lawyer with significant discretion about enforcing statutes from consumer protection to environmental regulation. The treasurer is responsible for investing state funds and has an ex-officio position on many important boards and commissions. The lieutenant governor is both next in line of succession for governor and also a member of several key state boards.
These down-ticket positions are also stepping stones for higher office. Most U.S. senators (John Ashcroft, Kit Bond, Jack Danforth, Tom Eagleton, Claire McCaskill) held one or more of them. With the exception of Joe Teasdale, every governor during the past 40 years had previously been a secretary of state (Warren Hearnes, Matt Blunt), a treasurer (Mel Carnahan, Bob Holden), an attorney general (John Ashcroft) or an auditor (Kit Bond).
The only mainstream media attention these races have received so far has been produced by quirks. Koster's ex-wife, for example, has made a $140,000 contribution to Gibbons' campaign, something evidently not prohibited by the divorce agreement.
As a result, to get their names recognized and their messages delivered, down-ticket candidates must pay for it. Since a statewide television buy hefty enough to penetrate the consciousness for a decent number of voters now costs at least $200,000 a week, that takes serious money. Those ads have just started for the Kinder-Page and Gibbons-Koster contests. The treasurer candidates will have their general election television debut later this month.
Terry Jones is a polling expert and professor at the University of Missouri at St. Louis. To reach him, contact Beacon features and commentary editor Donna Korando.