A Game of Inches

December 23, 2011 12:00 PM

By Jeff Smith

The Missouri Record published a quick blurb this morning about Senator Kevin Engler's decision to run for the House after he's termed out of the Senate next year [Politicians Say the Dumbest Things]. Engler himself notes that it is an unusual move.

Engler's decision is undoubtedly an interesting comment on term limits and how the Missouri legislature is adjusting to them. But to me it drove home another point: politics, like Engler's other beloved sport, golf, is a game of inches.

Indeed, I think that if Engler had drawn a longer straw in November 2010 when his caucus deadlocked 13-13 on the vote for the powerful position of Senate President Pro Tem, the Republican establishment would've found him to be the most attractive replacement candidate when Lieutenant Governor Peter bowed out of the governor's race.

Clearly, Engler would've encountered problems with the conservative base, just as he did in his Pro Tem race. His civil libertarian bent led him to become the first (and I believe only) Senate Republican to co-sponsor the Missouri Nondiscrimination Act (MONA), which would prohibit workplace discrimination against gay employees. His pragmatism and focus on job creation led him to support stem cell research, and he voted with labor often enough to please his unusually union-friendly rural district.

But some of those heresies are exactly what would have made Engler an attractive statewide candidate. With his sharp wit and background in finance, Engler can appeal to the more cosmopolitan Republican donor base in St. Louis and KC; with his Jesse the Body-like appearance, plainspoken populist rhetoric, and advocacy of silly symbolic legislation like the English-only bill, he can do rural. In fact, Engler straddles the urban/rural divide better than just about any Missouri pol, with the possible exceptions of US Senators Roy Blunt and Claire McCaskill.

One other practical advantage longtime stockbroker Engler would've brought to a statewide race is a built-in statewide field and fundraising network of Edward Jones brokers, most of whom have nice books of affluent clients from which to organize/raise. And unlike Dave Spence's deadbeat bank, Edward Jones didn't take bailout money. The investment house has always identified with Main Street, not Wall Street.

We'll see how Dave Spence performs. But I won't be surprised if in the wake of a Nixon re-election victory next November, there are a few Republicans wondering what might've been had Kevin Engler drawn a slightly longer straw against Rob Mayer.

Jeff Smith is Assistant Professor of Politics and Advocacy at Milano, The New School of Management, Urban Policy, and International Affairs, in New York City.

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