JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon touts over $1.5 billion in spending cuts, the elimination of 4,300 government jobs and four years of balancing a budget without tax increases during the nation's worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.
Perhaps that explains why Nixon, a Democrat, has been ahead in the polls in a tax-averse state that typically tilts toward Republicans.
Nixon, who already holds the record for longevity as attorney general, now is seeking to become the first governor to win re-election in Missouri in 16 years. He's opposed Nov. 6 by Republican businessman Dave Spence, a political newcomer who claims Nixon has been riding on the success of others while Missouri's economy has been slipping behind.
Their campaign has turned testy. Nixon has run TV ads suggesting Spence bought a vacation home with federal bailout money given to a bank for which he sat on the board of directors. Spence has sued Nixon for defamation and asserted Nixon "sold his soul to the devil" to try to win re-election. Spence contends Nixon is trying to fool Missouri voters with a campaign that highlights his independence and bipartisan cooperation.
"I just think he's a phony baloney, and people need to wake up to the fact that he truly is a Democrat," said Spence, who asserted Saturday that he was closing the gap on Nixon in public opinion polls.
Nixon counters that Spence has been "lashing out in emotional, undisciplined ways."
"I feel confident that when judged on a matrix of calm leadership and a solid track record that the difference here is very clear," Nixon said.
Nixon, 56, previously served 16 years as attorney general and six as a state senator from his home town of De Soto after graduating from the University of Missouri-Columbia with a law degree. In addition to his fiscal management as governor, he cites the fact that Missouri's unemployment rate is now at its lowest mark in nearly four years and remains below the national average.
During the past two-and-a-half years, Nixon has attended about 80 ground breakings, ribbon cuttings and expansion announcements for businesses that he has said could create up to 13,700 total jobs, according to records kept by The Associated Press. Those projects could receive $390 million of state incentives, if they meet job targets and other criteria. But some won't.
In a particularly high-profile flop, Mamtek U.S. failed to follow through on a plan to build an artificial sweetener factory in Moberly that Nixon had said could eventually employ more than 600 people. Instead, the city of Moberly ended up defaulting on $39 million of bonds it issued for the facility, and the CEO faces charges of theft and securities fraud. The state never shelled out its $17.6 million of incentives, because the project fell apart before it could fulfill the criteria.
Republican State Auditor Tom Schweich concluded that the state Department of Economic Development, the city and private entities were not diligent enough in screening the project.
"Somebody ought to go to jail over that in the Nixon administration," Spence said.
Nixon instead points to successes — most notably, a 2010 special legislation session he called that resulted in new incentives for the automotive industry. Since then, Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Co. have announced plans to invest hundreds of millions of dollars into plants in the Kansas City and St. Louis areas, retaining and adding thousands of jobs.
"I'm very engaged in job creation," Nixon said. "I spend a great deal of my time, both in the office and around the state, not only working to recruit companies to invest and expand but also to make sure we have workers trained to do it."
Spence contends Nixon's job announcements are little more than photo opportunities in which he takes credit for work achieved by others.
"Jay Nixon does economic development about as well as I would do playing center in the NBA," quips Spence, who stands 5-foot-7-inches and has never played competitive basketball. (Nixon, at 6-foot-3-inches, is a former power forward who has competed in the basketball skills contest of the Show-Me State Games while governor.)