Gov. Matt Blunt abruptly announced Tuesday that he will not seek a second term, leaving Republicans without a candidate in a race for which the incumbent had stockpiled millions of dollars.
The 37-year-old said he had decided not to seek a second term in November because he had accomplished virtually everything he set out to do when he ran for governor four years ago. Blunt has trailed in the polls, however, behind Democratic Attorney General Jay Nixon, who has been campaigning against him for several years.
In a video statement released Tuesday afternoon, Blunt said he had balanced an out-of-whack state budget, boosted education spending and transformed the state's Medicaid health care system for the poor.
"Because I feel we have changed what I wanted to change in the first term, there is not the same sense of mission for a second," Blunt said.
One of Blunt's best-known actions as governor was among his first — eliminating or reducing Medicaid benefits to hundreds of thousands of low-income Missourians as a way to balance the budget. Nixon has made the 2005 cuts the central point of his campaign against Blunt.
Earlier this month, Blunt was sued by a former staff attorney who claims he was fired and defamed in retaliation for pointing out that Blunt's office was destroying e-mails in violation of Missouri's open-records law. Blunt has defended the September firing of Scott Eckersley but has declined to comment on the allegations that his office intentionally purged e-mails as a way to avoid providing information under a sunshine law request.
Blunt did not indicate what he intends to do upon leaving office in January 2009 but said he wants to spend more time with his wife, Melanie, and their son, Branch, who is almost 3.
"I have spent more time away from them than I would like," Blunt said. "We are ready for the next chapter in our lives."
GOP lawmakers ‘dumbfounded’
Republican legislative leaders said they were shocked after Blunt revealed his intentions to them in a conference call shortly before the public announcement.
"I'm still dealing with the surprise. I'm sort of dumbfounded," said Senate President Pro Tem Michael Gibbons. A candidate for attorney general, Gibbons said he will not give up that race to run for governor, but others quickly shifted their thinking.
"It changes everything," said Republican House Speaker Rod Jetton, who is barred by term limits from seeking re-election and said he would consider running for Blunt's job.
Other Republicans considering a gubernatorial campaign include Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder and state Rep. Jack Jackson.
A poll conducted last November for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and TV station KMOV showed Nixon ahead of Blunt, 51 percent to 42 percent, with a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.
Nixon's campaign had focused heavily on Blunt's shortcomings. After Blunt's announcement, Nixon said in a statement, "I will continue to focus on changing the direction of our state so that more Missourians have access to health care, more Missourians can find good-paying jobs and more Missouri children can get the quality education they deserve."
No easy ride for Democrat
The loss of the GOP's expected nominee doesn't ensure an easy ride for Nixon, political scientist David Webber said. Primary elections are in August.
"I don't think there's a big vacuum," Webber said. "I think that the Republicans do have a strong party organization and they have experienced candidates, so it shouldn't be hard for them."
Blunt was the second-youngest Missouri governor ever when he took office in January 2005, leading Missouri's first Republican-controlled Legislature and governor's mansion in about 80 years. He had served the four previous years as secretary of state and before that served one term as a state representative from southwest Missouri.
The Republican Legislature passed almost every priority Blunt has backed. Among them: restrictions on liability lawsuits and workplace injury claims; a new school funding method; tougher penalties on child sex offenders; an ethanol mandate for gasoline; and abortion restrictions.