JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — Suburban St. Louis businessman John Brunner is expected to join the GOP race for governor this week with former Navy SEAL officer Eric Greitens, meaning there’ll be two candidates who have never held public office. It’s a trait that nationally has propelled political outsiders, such as presidential hopeful Donald Trump, but is historically unpopular in Missouri.
Voters’ concern about how the U.S. government has been run is driving interest in candidates “who may have a fresh perspective completely outside the political system,” says University of Missouri-St. Louis political scientist David Robertson.
Missouri’s Republican candidates appear to be taking that cue, even though it’s been nearly a century since the last governor — Frederick Dozier Gardner, who ran a coffin business and was elected in 1916 — assumed office straight from the business world.
Greitens is touting himself as a “conservative outsider” with an otherwise lengthy resume that includes, aside from the Navy SEALs, time as a Rhodes Scholar, a White House fellow, and a leader of a nonprofit that helps returning military veterans. During a campaign stop at the University of Missouri-Columbia on Thursday, Greitens criticized any expectation to be “politically correct.” It echoed statements from Trump, who last month said he’s tired of “this politically correct crap.”
Brunner plans to formally enter the race Monday and notes on his campaign website that he’s “not a career politician.” That said, Brunner, who in 2009 retired as CEO of the hand sanitizer and personal care company Vi-Jon Inc., did have a failed bid for U.S. Senate in 2012 and has been a longtime GOP campaign donor.
“Missouri will not be reformed and restored to greatness from within by lifelong politicians or political opportunists,” Brunner said in a September statement.
If either Greitens or Brunner makes it through what’s shaping up to be a five-way Republican primary and wins election, it’d be the first governor in four decades to not have first served in another statewide office. The winner of the primary likely will face Democratic candidate and two-term Attorney General Chris Koster, who has said he plans to run.
Former Democratic Gov. Joseph P. Teasdale in 1976 broke a nearly 30-year streak of governors who had previously been elected to a statewide seat, and every governor since Teasdale has also had that experience. Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon, who is barred from running for re-election because of term limits, was previously elected to four terms as attorney general.
But even Teasdale previously served in public office as U.S. attorney and Jackson County prosecutor, making Gardner the only governor to not serve in public office — not even as a city mayor or county clerk — or on a state committee or commission.
Political scientists say candidates trying to break into politics, especially high-level positions, face challenges.
Campaigning is taxing and requires constant restraint when speaking to reporters, and new candidates sometimes struggle to flesh out policy ideas, University of Missouri-Columbia political scientist Marvin Overby said.
While other candidates might have already been vetted and weathered blowback from past transgressions that came to light, Robertson said, that could end a less experienced politician’s campaign.
“These things tend to shake out as the inexperience and novelty of candidates like Trump wear off and it tends to be people with experience who know how to use that experience to win even in circumstances that are unprecedented,” said Robertson.