Advertisement

GOP Reformers Face a Tough Fight

GOP Reformers Face a Tough Fight

By Kimberley Strassel - July 18, 2008

The 11th commandment of politics is that elected officials shall not take sides in their party primaries. Then again, Missouri Republicans are burdened with so many sins, what's one more?

For an insight as to why the GOP is down and out in Washington, take a look at Jefferson City. That's where Sarah Steelman, the state treasurer, is running in an Aug. 5 primary for the Missouri governorship. And it's where her reform campaign against earmarks and self-dealing is threatening the entrenched status quo, causing her own party to rise against her.

So bitter are House Minority Whip Roy Blunt and Sen. Kit Bond at Ms. Steelman's attack on their cherished spending beliefs that last month they rallied the entire Missouri congressional delegation to put out a public statement openly criticizing her campaign against six-term U.S. Rep. Kenny Hulshof. Joining them in their support of Mr. Hulshof has been the vast majority of the state Republican machine. Ms. Steelman is clearly doing something right.

Her sin is in fact to belong to that new mold of Republican - Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, Sens. Tom Coburn and Jim DeMint - who know it's no longer enough to simply hawk lower taxes. In 10 years as a state legislator and treasurer, her target has been the slothful political favor factory that's led Republicans away from small-government principles and outraged conservative voters.

And, oh, the howls of misery. Ms. Steelman's Republican colleagues were livid with her attempt to strip them of comfy pensions, annoyed with her "sunshine law" requiring them to be more open in their dealings, furious at her attacks on their ethanol boondoggles, appalled that she criticized GOP state Speaker Rod Jetton for moonlighting as a paid political consultant. The final straw was her temerity to make her primary race about her opponent's Washington earmarking record.

For Mr. Blunt, this is also just a wee bit personal. His son, Matt, is the outgoing governor, and has been on the receiving end of a few Treasurer Steelman blasts. Last year she stopped payment on a $70,000 secret check his administration cut to settle a sexual harassment suit against an official. Her demand for transparency blew the case into the open, infuriating GOP colleagues.

There was also Ms. Steelman's attempted cleanup of an ethanol program. The treasurer announced her office would no longer provide below-market interest rates for ethanol plants that counted state officials or their relatives among investors.

Among companies barred was Show Me Ethanol, whose shareholders included Mr. Blunt's son Andy - one of the state's top lobbyists - as well as Republican state Rep. John Quinn and his wife, not to mention the wife of Republican U.S. Rep. Sam Graves. Instead of thanking Ms. Steelman for ridding it of this conflict, in May the Missouri state senate voted to overturn her policy. It did so with a head-count vote, so as to avoid a written record.

Undaunted, Ms. Steelman has made ethics reform the centerpiece of her campaign. Mr. Hulshof has been able to tout his own history as an ethics reformer, though the fervor with which his party's regulars have embraced him has undercut that message. His real weakness is that despite conservative credentials on taxes or social issues, he's run wild with the GOP crowd that just won't relinquish the pork. Which is of course why Mr. Blunt (who pioneered House earmarks) and Mr. Bond (who sits at earmark central, the Senate appropriations committee) love him.

Ms. Steelman's ads have noted Mr. Hulshof's support for the Alaskan Bridge to Nowhere, the Maine Lobster Institute, the Perfect Christmas Tree exhibit and the Woodstock concert hall. Their first debate last week centered on Mr. Hulshof's spending record. In an interview with a local reporter, he felt so cornered that he asked the interviewer what earmarks have "to do" with being "governor" anyway.

Mr. Hulshof's congressional protectors have proved equally amusing. In their statement, Messrs. Blunt, Bond and Graves, as well as Reps. Jo Ann Emerson and Todd Akin, told the public it was perfectly OK Mr. Hulshof had voted for earmarks - because they'd voted for them too!

Ms. Steelman has her own weaknesses - among them ties to the trial bar - which Mr. Hulshof is highlighting. He's also neatly spun his establishment ties into a formidable campaign war chest. Despite this, polls show he retains only a modest lead, and 30% of likely Republican voters have yet to decide. The winner faces Democratic Attorney General Jay Nixon, who currently beats both in polls.

If Ms. Steelman's bid shows anything, it's how determined a wandering Republican Party, both nationally and locally, is to hold on to the bad habits that lost them their reputation. Beware to the reformer.

Ms. Strassel is a member of The Wall Street Journal's editorial board.

Kimberley Strassel

Author Archive

Follow Real Clear Politics

Latest On Twitter