Ike Skelton, veteran Missouri Democrat, faces strong challenge

McClatchy NewspapersOctober 25, 2010 

WASHINGTON – Rep. Ike Skelton voted for cap and trade, the economic stimulus and the Wall Street bailout.

He opposed health care reform. But that’s three out of four of the big political hot buttons that have fueled the anti-Washington, anti-incumbent mood of this year’s midterm election campaign.

It’s more than enough ammunition for his Republican opponent, Vicky Hartzler, to portray the Missouri Democrat as out of touch with the voters in the 4th Congressional District.

How true that is will become clear Nov. 2.

But their race has become emblematic of the powerful political currents this fall that could shipwreck some longstanding Democratic battleships like Skelton, who have sailed easily to re-election for years.

“We’re seeing Republicans gain traction because of, not despite, their opponent’s seniority and congressional longevity,” said David Wasserman, a House analyst for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report in Washington. “To some extent, Vicky Hartzler has capitalized on that.”

Skelton, 78, was encouraged early on to enter politics by no less a Missouri icon than former President Harry Truman. He was elected to Congress in 1976 and has served under six presidents.

Hartzler, 50, spent three terms during the 1990s in the Missouri House of Representatives.

Four decades versus a resume of six years doesn’t sound like a fair fight. But the politics of anger this year has turned what might be strength into a potential weakness.

The race has tightened in recent days and is now viewed as a tossup.

Skelton has refused to debate, a strategy for some incumbents suddenly running for their political lives who don’t want to chance a public misstep or raise the profile of their challengers.

But he and Hartzler have tussled from afar. She has attacked his support last year for the climate change bill. Few of the 20,000 votes Skelton has cast in his years on Capitol Hill have probably given him more political heartburn.

Indeed, it cost him the endorsement of the Missouri Farm Bureau, which abandoned him after more than a decade to support his opponent.

Known as cap and trade, the bill would have imposed a tax on carbon emissions. But it met stiff resistance in states like Missouri that have lots of farmers and use lots of coal.

“For a rural district, we just think that’s absolutely wrong,” said Hartzler spokesman Steve Walsh.

Defending his vote at the time, Skelton said the bill exempted livestock and farmers from greenhouse gas regulations and barred the Environmental Protection Agency from being involved.

For his part, Skelton claims that Hartzler’s support for veterans is weak, a potent charge in a congressional district with two big military installations, Whiteman Air Force Base and Fort Leonard Wood.

She voted against a bill in 1997 to provide re-enlistment bonuses for the Missouri National Guard and also help pay for burial costs of fallen troops. A year later, she opposed a bill to make it easier for service members and other federal employees overseas to vote via the Internet.

“She has a troubling pattern of votes when it comes to supporting the troops,” said Skelton spokesman Jason Rauch. “His is crystal clear.”

Hartzler countered that she opposed the re-enlistment bill because she objected to some of the money being used for non-military spending, like early childhood education.

“My vote was anything but anti-military,” she said on her website.

Military readiness and protecting Whiteman and Fort Leonard Wood have long been Skelton’s primary focus. He has also pushed for military pay raises and expanding the naval fleet, and sponsored legislation to better care for troops returning from the war zones.

He was instrumental in the passage of key legislation in the 1980s that created the military’s joint command. He voted to send troops to Iraq, but with reservations, and he remained deeply skeptical of the mission throughout the war. His early warnings to the Bush administration about the perils of occupation proved prescient.

The Republican playbook this year is to tie Democrats like Skelton to President Barack Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who has replaced the late Sen. Edward Kennedy as the GOP’s go-to bete noir.

Skelton has voted with the Pelosi-led House Democrats 95 percent of the time during the current Congress, according to the Washington Post congressional Votes Database.

Hartzler refers to “Nancy Pelosi liberals” and brandishes Skelton’s party loyalty score like a prosecutor waving the murder weapon before a jury.

“A squandering of our vote,” she said.

“I call them as I see them,” Skelton said.

He is largely viewed as a moderate-to-conservative Democrat on a lot of issues. Based on his voting record in 2009, he sits in the political middle, according to an annual survey by the National Journal, a nonpartisan magazine that covers government, politics and policy.

About half the members of the House either voted more liberally or more conservatively than him on economic and social issues, the survey found.

He voted to expand stem cell research and for anti-gay hate crimes legislation, but he opposed partial birth abortion and same sex marriage.

His endorsements reflect the difficulty of political pigeon-holing. The National Rifle Association and Missouri Right to Life, an anti-abortion group, are in his corner, and so is the National Education Association, a teachers union and among the Democratic Party’s biggest backers.

“It’s probably a struggle for him, even more so than for other long serving Democrats, because he is conservative,” said Shari Bax, who teaches political science at Central Missouri State University. “He has a very fine line to walk. He doesn’t want to completely reject his party outright, even though he has been at odds with them, like on abortion and guns. At the same time, if he embraces his party, he can’t get re-elected.”

Hartzler was born on a farm, became a teacher and was elected in 1994 to the Missouri House. She left in 2000 to raise a family.

In Jefferson City, she was in the minority, an obstacle to getting her bills through. But she drew high marks from groups backing business, gun rights and conservative family issues. Environmental and civil rights groups were less enthusiastic.

Hartzler sponsored a number of bills, including efforts to combat sexual abuse of children, allow police to obtain search warrants by telephone, revise workers’ compensation laws and tighten liquor sales at resorts.

She also backed measures to expedite adoption cases involving the termination of parental rights, and to require physicians who do abortions to first inform their patients, in writing and verbally, of their right to view their sonograms beforehand.

She opposes abortion and also has the backing of Missouri Right to Life. She was the spokesperson for the successful 2004 campaign to ban gay marriage in the state.

Bax said she was a hardworking legislator with a strong conservative record.

“She was on the socially conservative side of the party, the group that came to the Republican Party with a strong focus on the abortion issue,” Bax said. “Ideologically, she is the same person she was then.”

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