By Phill Brooks
I’m tired of Missouri political campaigns dominated by attack advertisements funded by national organizations in which there’s barely a whisper about what the candidates actually seek to accomplish.
Naively, after the 2015 suicide of State Auditor Tom Schweich, I had thought Missouri politics might return to a more civil discourse.
Schweich, running for the GOP nomination for governor, was subjected to a humiliating radio advertisement comparing him to the comic figure Barney Fife in “The Andy Griffith” TV show.
My expectation for change arose a few days after Schweich’s death when State Sen. Mike Parson, R-Bolivar, rose on the Senate floor to call for a return to the politics of decency.
“I will no longer stand by and let people destroy other people’s lives,” the future governor told his colleagues. “I’m not gonna do it no more,” Parson vowed.
“It speaks volumes to how far out of hand this has become, to base things totally on one’s appearance and to make reference to one being small and being able to be squashed like a bug should be unacceptable to all of us,” Parson said about the ad that mocked Schweich’s small stature.
A few days later at Schweich’s memorial service, former U.S. Senator John Danforth issued a similar call.
“I believe deep in my heart that it’s now our duty, yours and mine, to turn politics into something much better than its now-so-miserable state,” Danforth said. “Let’s make Tom’s death a turning point in our state.”
Yet, just months later, I saw an indication it was wishful thinking.
At the conclusion of the first debate of candidates for the GOP nomination for governor, Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder used the absence of Schweich from the debate to call on his opponents to join him in rejecting negative campaigns like the one launched against deceased state auditor.
“It is time to end the politics of personal destruction in our state,” Kinder said. He urged his fellow candidates to join him in a pledge to conduct campaigns on “facts and fair argument.”
But no one joined Kinder’s call that night. So, I’m not surprised by some of the political ads this year.
Republican Josh Hawley has been labeled a “Golden Boy” in attack ads using an unfavorable photo.
Equally unfavorable photos are used against Democrat Claire McCaskill that attack her family’s finances — “She gets rich, you pay.”
Some political consultants argue that negative ads actually work — not in winning votes for a candidate, but by suppressing turnout for the candidate’s opponent.
Yet, Missouri has examples that civil, positive campaigns on issues can work.
Danforth did it in his victory for attorney general in 1968 with a campaign on what he sought to accomplish.
Four years later, fellow Republican Kit Bond was elected governor on a campaign that echoed Danforth’s positive approach.
But maybe the greatest demonstration of sticking to a positive message came from Democrat Mel Carnahan in his successful race for governor in 1992.
With his Republican opponent facing a federal criminal investigation, for which Bill Webster ultimately was convicted, it would have been easy for Carnahan to go negative.
But he avoided the temptation. Instead, he centered his campaign on a positive policy issue — a tax increase for education.
To be fair, the continuing news stories of Webster’s grand jury investigation made it easier for Carnahan to gamble on a positive campaign for a tax increase.
However, from covering Carnahan for so many years, I doubt he gave much thought about making Webster’s legal problems a major issue.
In defense of candidates benefiting from attack ads, often the candidates are not responsible.
Instead, many of these negative ads are from outside, independent national organizations over which the candidates have no control. In fact, laws prohibit coordination.
But, I don’t think there’s anything that restricts candidates from publicly disavowing these independent, negative character-assassination ads — just as Mike Parson and Peter Kinder did three years ago.
[Phill Brooks has been a Missouri statehouse reporter since 1970, making him dean of the statehouse press corps. He is the statehouse correspondent for KMOX Radio, director of MDN and an emeritus faculty member of the Missouri School of Journalism. He has covered every governor since the late Warren Hearnes.]