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Catanese: What’s next for Jay Nixon?

By Dave Catanese, special to The Missouri Times

WASHINGTON D.C. — Just three weeks after breezily notching a 12-point reelection victory, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon made an uncharacteristic move that caught even some of his admirers by surprise.

Gov. Jay Nixon
Gov. Jay Nixon

He lunged to the left.

In announcing his support in late November for expanding the state’s Medicaid rolls — an issue he had been largely silent on during campaign season — the 56-year-old moderate Democrat signaled his intention to fulfill a progressive campaign promise he first made more than four years ago.

But that policy prescription — staunchly opposed by a Republican-dominant legislature — could also be viewed as the first step in Nixon’s next chapter, as he ponders what comes next, after an eight year stint in the governor’s mansion.

Nixon’s political success thus far has been rooted in his pitch perfect, if not bland, moderation in a decidedly pink state.  But, if he has grander ambitions beyond Jefferson City, he will likely need to recalibrate his carefully crafted image before dipping his toe in national waters.

Those in Nixon’s political orbit insist there have been no formal conversations about the governor’s long-term future yet.  But his unquestionable appetite for public service — he served four terms as attorney general, three terms in the state senate and made two unsuccessful runs for U.S. Senate — suggests a 2016 game plan is on the horizon.

With Des Moines less than 300 miles away, an appearance at a Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner in a kick-off caucus state would be a convenient and natural testing ground.

“Typically, those elected from nearby Midwestern states do well here,” said Sue Dvorksy, chair of the Iowa Democratic Party.  “We’ve got a lot in common with Missouri.  We’re more a stable shade of purple, but you have the similarity of rural vs. urban and agricultural interests.  I’ve never met the governor, but a candidacy for somebody like Gov. Nixon is why we exist.”

cvr shot
Nixon being sworn in for his second term in January 2013.

Yet, at this very early juncture, a Nixon presidential run looks like the least viable option.

After a 2012 campaign cycle that reelected a progressive African American president, elected the first openly gay U.S. Senator and passed several pro-marijuana and gay marriage initiatives, it’s difficult to see how the middle-of-the-road Nixon would navigate a primary process inside a party that’s exceedingly moving to the left.

Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo — two other potential 2016 presidential prospects — are already scrambling to become liberals cause célèbre, attempting to outflank each other on key issues like marriage equality, the death penalty, and gun control.

It’s true that Nixon has a solid record on union issues and has improved his rocky relationship with minorities, appointing the second-ever African American to the state Supreme Court in 2011. He also endorsed Rep. Lacy Clay over Rep. Russ Carnahan in their ugly member-on-member primary last August and vetoed a bill allowing insurance companies to deny contraceptive coverage and legislation to require photo identification to vote.

But Nixon opposes gay marriage, is against a death penalty moratorium and cut the ribbon at the National Rifle Association’s 2012 convention in St. Louis.

He fits the mold of the late Pennsylvania Gov. Robert Casey in a party where the base is craving more Elizabeth Warrens.

“The ‘I’m a Democrat that’s never raised taxes, and never had fights with Republicans . . . I don’t see how that prepares you for a Democratic primary,” said one Democratic consultant who asked for anonymity in order not to offend Nixon.  “You could carve out the space as the centrist, but in my experience, it’s not a big enough space.”

Even former Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, who is flirting with a White House run, is to the left of Nixon on issues like health care and America’s military entanglements abroad.  And he carries a folksy, media-friendly persona guaranteed to attract the Beltway spotlight that Nixon eschews.

One Democratic consultant who has worked in Missouri likened Nixon to former Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh — an impressive general election presidential candidate on paper — lacking the fervent activist constituency that’s necessary on the ground to clinch a primary.

Then, of course, there’s the Hillary factor.

If Secretary Clinton decides to wage another historic White House bid as a crowning achievement, look for Nixon to back her campaign without hesitation.

Even after Barack Obama had essentially clinched the Democratic nomination in 2008, Nixon stayed noticeably neutral and on the sidelines as others raced to embrace the victor.Gov

Former President Bill Clinton campaigned and raised money for Nixon’s 1998 Senate bid and the governor has held an enduring amount of respect and admiration for both Clintons ever since.

Furthermore, if Nixon has his eyes on a post in Washington, Hillary’s ascendance might be his best shot.

While it’s impossible to predict what the political environment will look like in the summer of 2016, the odds that Nixon would be on the vice presidential short list are far greater if Clinton is the nominee, than, say, an East Coast white male former governor like Cuomo or O’Malley.

Allies of Nixon also believe he’d be a natural candidate for U.S. Attorney General in a Democratic administration, especially if the incoming president was looking for a non-controversial pick that could easily sweep up GOP votes without a prolonged, bitter confirmation fight.

“You could imagine a whole range of scenarios for Jay,” said Roy Temple, the Democratic political operative who served as a longtime aide to Gov. Mel Carnahan.  “In the most likely scenario, you likely end up seeing him being a Senator or being a Cabinet member.”

The U.S. Senate option is one that can’t be easily dismissed, but also involves considerable risk.  Freshman GOP Sen. Roy Blunt, who proved to be a dogged campaigner in 2010, will face his first reelection in 2016 and is likely to be flush with campaign funds.

There will no doubt be boundless interest from Washington and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in a Nixon Senate candidacy, given his popularity and profile.

But given Nixon’s nature, he would likely have to be convinced of a clear path to victory in order to pull the trigger on what would be a national race to become a freshman senator.

Observed the Democratic operative requesting anonymity, “He knows better than anyone that’s a different race.”

Nixon could always land a lucrative paying job in the private sector and gradually slip out of the limelight, his legacy intact as a largely unifying and successful governor who bucked a reddening trend in the Show-Me State.

But those who know him best have a hard time seeing him not wanting to continue to serve in the public arena in some capacity.

“The governor was just reelected. Any speculation beyond his job right now is premature,” said his 2012 campaign manager Oren Shur, before adeptly plugging his boss’ most shining asset.

“At a time when everyone is frustrated with gridlock and hyper-partisanship, Gov. Nixon stands out for his ability to bring Democrats and Republicans together.  There’s a huge appetite for that now.”