Former Gov. Jay Nixon to headline Clay County Democratic event, fueling Senate chatter

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While Democrats hoping to capture the party’s 2022 U.S. Senate nomination scramble to raise their profile, and the Republican field increasingly looking like a scrum, Jay Nixon is waiting quietly in the wings.

A Democrat who served two terms as governor and four as attorney general, Nixon began fielding calls from national party leaders the moment U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt announced his retirement in March.

Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer of New York has dropped Nixon’s name in calls with donors discussing potential 2022 races to watch — the only Missourian who gets a mention, according to those on the calls.

Nixon, 65, is talking to longtime aides, friends and acquaintances, gaming out the 2022 landscape and weighing his options.

Those close to the former governor say he hasn’t made any decisions about whether to come out of retirement for another statewide run. But he’s considering the possibility very seriously.

How serious? After years of staying mostly out of the spotlight, Nixon is planning to headline the Clay County Democrats annual fundraising event next month in Excelsior Springs.

The choice of venue is no coincidence.

Nixon, who did not respond to a request for comment, scored double-digit victories in the suburban county in 2008 and 2012, thanks in part to a huge bloc of labor voters from the Ford assembly plant in Claycomo.

Clay County margins have shrunk for statewide Democratic candidates in subsequent years, with Claire McCaskill eking out a two-point win in 2018 when she lost her Senate seat to Republican Josh Hawley.

“It’s not surprising that the governor’s phone is ringing,” said a source close to Nixon who asked for anonymity in order to speak candidly.

Nixon consistently won in places “that Democrats have been struggling in these past 10 years. He won in those counties largely because he was able to connect with working people about their day-to-day economic lives. And I think he’s concerned that our elected leaders have simply lost touch with everyday working folks.”

Jim Kabell, a Missouri labor leader and Teamsters official, told NBC News earlier this year that a potential Nixon candidacy is getting so much attention because “when he was governor, he won in rural Missouri, and that’s the area where we need to strengthen.”

But while Nixon is seen in many circles as potentially the party’s best hope of recapturing a Senate seat in a state that’s been trending Republican for two decades, not everyone is so sanguine on his chances.

When Nixon’s name last appeared on a ballot, Democrats controlled all but two statewide offices. Today, only Auditor Nicole Galloway remains — and she recently announced she won’t seek re-election after a double-digit loss in the race for governor last year.

“The electorate is different now than the one he faced the last time in 2012,” said Jeremy Walling, a political science professor at Southeast Missouri State University in Cape Girardeau, later adding: “Nixon would be facing an electorate in which more voters supported Trump in 2020 than 2016. I’m not sure I see the gap closing here.”

And while rural Missouri is more ruby red than during Nixon’s career, he could also face problems with the party’s base.

His involvement in ending school desegregation programs in Kansas City and St. Louis as attorney general, as well as his handling as governor of the 2014 uprising in Ferguson, left deep fissures between Nixon and many Black political leaders in the state.

“For a lot of people, Jay Nixon’s time as governor was very much colored by everything that happened in Ferguson,” said Rosetta Okohson, founder and CEO of MO Political Consulting. “A lot of people don’t feel like Jay showed up.”

Missouri deserves to be excited about the candidates that are running for Senate, Okohoson said, and “I don’t think anyone is excited about the candidates who have come out of the gate and said they were planning to run.”

Democratic primary

The race for the Democratic nomination is already starting to get crowded.

Marine Corps veteran Lance Kunce of Independence, activist Tim Shepard of Kansas City, former state Sen. Scott Sifton of Afton and entrepreneur Spencer Toder of St. Louis have filed paperwork with the Federal Elections Commission to run for the Senate in 2022.

Of that group, Kunce and Sifton were the only ones raising significant money. Both reported raising six-figures during the first quarter, with Kunce recently announcing he raised more than $600,000 during the second quarter.

Meanwhile, Republicans either in the race or openly considering a run are raising big money.

Attorney General Eric Schmitt hasn’t filed his latest campaign finance disclosures yet, but announced last week that he has raised $1 million.

Disgraced former Gov. Eric Greitens hasn’t personally raised much money so far. But Politico reported Tuesday that Richard Uihlein, a billionaire shipping and industrial supply company executive, is donating $2.5 million to a newly formed pro-Greitens super PAC.

U.S. Rep. Vicky Hartzler ended March with nearly $700,000 cash on hand in her federal account, which she can now use for her Senate campaign.

U.S. Rep. Jason Smith, who hasn’t entered the race but has made it no secret he’s interested, has $1.4 million cash on hand over the same period.

Nixon has proven during his political career that he can raise a lot of money. Those familiar with his thinking on the race say he’s in no rush to make up his mind about whether to jump in because he’s confident he’ll be able to build a substantial campaign war chest for 2022.

One factor that could push Nixon into the race is the re-emergence of Greitens.

Greitens was forced to resign as Missouri’s governor in 2018, facing almost certain impeachment under an avalanche of scandals and felony charges.

In March, he announced he was running for Blunt’s seat, setting off panic among many Republicans who worry he remains popular enough to win a crowded primary but is politically damaged enough to lose to Democrats in the general election.

That fear inspired an unsuccessful push earlier this year by state lawmakers to change Missouri primary elections to require a runoff if no candidate garners more than 50 percent of the vote.

Why not?

Those close to Nixon say he doesn’t want to jump into the race unless he sees a path to victory.

He’s run for the U.S. Senate twice before, challenging incumbent Republicans in 1988 and 1998, and lost big both times.

And while Nixon may seem appealing to party leaders who hope he can win back rural Democrats who voted for Trump in 2016 and 2020, that formula has failed in other states.

Former Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen, former Montana Gov. Steve Bullock and former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland each ran for Senate as elder statesmen who could appeal to white, working-class voters who had become reliable Republicans.

Each lost their race by double digits.

Nixon’s long career in politics might actually work against him, Walling said.

“I’m not sure how much anti-insider/drain the swamp attitude still exists,” he said, “but Nixon is the ultimate insider.”

Nixon and his wife are also said to be enjoying life away from politics, with Nixon particularly enjoying his role as a partner in the Dowd Bennet law firm in St. Louis.

Additionally, some of Nixon’s closest advisers are no longer there to help with any future campaign.

John Watson, the former governor’s longtime friend and adviser, passed away last year. Others have left politics behind, such as his former counsel Edward Ardini, who Nixon appointed to the Missouri Court of Appeals for the Western District.

But with Democrats barely holding on to a majority in the U.S. Senate, the potential to make Missouri competitive in 2022 is fanning the flames of those trying to lure Nixon into the race.

“The coalition you have to put together in Missouri, it’s very tough because you have to just hang the moon in the progressive blue areas of the state. And then you have to cut the margins in rural Missouri,” McCaskill recently told St. Louis Public Radio.

She continued: “I think Jay can cut the margins in rural Missouri. I think he has some work to do to make sure the progressive wing of the Democratic Party is enthusiastic about him.”

Okohoson, who has run successful campaigns across the state, including flipping a GOP-held state House seat in 2019, agreed with McCaskill.

It’s true that Democrats need rural votes to win statewide, Okohoson said, but that can’t come at the expense of the party’s base.

“You need Black women in the state to be able to get behind you and support you,” she said. “If they’re saying that they’re not in, and they can’t talk to their family members and friends and encourage them to be supportive and get everybody riled up, you’re not going to win. That’s just the bottom line.”

This story was produced by the Missouri Independent, a nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering state government, politics and policy.