Republican topples Missouri's 17-term Rep. Ike Skelton

Kansas City StarNovember 3, 2010 

Vicky Hartzler — taking advantage of central Missouri's deep anger and distrust of government — decisively upset 34-year House veteran Ike Skelton on Tuesday.

With more than 92 percent of the district's precincts reporting, Hartzler, the Republican, had 51 percent of the votes. Skelton, the Democrat, had 45 percent.

"I've told people all along that this district has been fed up and fired up and ready to stand up, and we did," Hartzler told cheering supporters.

Hartzler's victory was part of a huge national sweep for her party, and reflected the strongly conservative nature of the 4th Congressional District.

Skelton had appealed for votes by pointing out his opposition to his party's health care reform and longtime support for the military. But it was not enough to overcome Hartzler's persistent criticism of his ties to the unpopular Democratic leadership in Congress.

He conceded the race shortly after 10:15 p.m., speaking to supporters in Lexington.

"I cannot thank my neighbors, my friends, my supporters enough," he said. "No one in political life has had greater friendship or support than I."

Skelton's race attracted national attention because he's chairman of the House Armed Services Committee and is considered one of the leading members of his party on Capitol Hill. Over the years he used his influence and senior status to protect military installations such Whiteman Air Force Base and Fort Leonard Wood.

His defeat also marks the end of a political career that stretched for roughly half a century. In 1962, former President Harry S. Truman first suggested the then-county prosecutor run for Congress. Fourteen years later, Skelton finally took Truman's advice, winning the first of 17 consecutive terms.

Jack Hackley of Oak Grove called Skelton's defeat "devastating."

"Independent voters wanted a change in Washington," he said. "When the pendulum swings, there's nothing you can do."While Hartzler's victory was considered a mild upset, it is not shocking. The 4th District — nearly 15,000 square miles, stretching through much of central and west-central Missouri — voted overwhelmingly for Republican John McCain in 2008. Republicans targeted the district early in the election cycle.

Hartzler campaigned relentlessly throughout the 25-county district, linking Skelton to the "Nancy Pelosi agenda" and sharply attacking his votes for a cap-and-trade energy bill, the economic stimulus spending, and the TARP bank bailout.

Skelton had leads Tuesday evening in Johnson and Pulaski counties, home to the two military installations, but he lost decisively to Hartzler in rural areas along the southern and western tiers of the district.

Her supporters were ecstatic.

"I know Vicky," said Randy Pike, a Bates County commissioner. "I trust her. She's going to do a great job."

Forrest Williams, watching returns with his wife, Lucille, said Hartzler would do what she promised during the campaign.

But he had added a warning: "We'll get rid of people in two years if they don't do what we say."Hartzler was aided by a fundraising effort that fell short of Skelton's, but still provided ample resources for media campaigns in Kansas City, Springfield, and Columbia. Hartzler raised more than $1.1 million through mid-October, compared with Skelton's $2.2 million.

Democrats said Skelton was prepared for a serious challenge and ran an aggressive campaign against Hartzler — precisely the campaign party leaders thought would be needed.

But she successfully deflected charges that as a member of the state legislature she had voted against gun rights and bonuses for Missouri's National Guardsmen. She also brushed off criticism that her family's farming interests had accepted more than $750,000 in taxpayer subsidies since the mid-1990s, despite her opposition to some federal spending and her criticism of the deficit and debt.

And she hammered Skelton for his congressional votes, particularly cap-and-trade, a bill that deeply worried farmers in the district.

He defended that vote late in the campaign — arguing the bill actually protected farmers. And he told The Kansas City Star last week he had no regrets about his campaign's message.

"I represent the people of this district," the 78-year-old congressman said. "I'm an independent voice."

Hartzler, 50,is expected to be a reliably conservative vote in the House. The leadership has promised her a seat on the Armed Services Committee, although as a freshman she'll have little direct influence there.

Her faith also is likely to be a central focus of her service in Washington. In fact, she has written a book, "Running God's Way: Step by Step to a Successful Political Campaign," and she once orchestrated a statewide campaign against same-sex marriage.

Hartzler lives with her husband, Lowell, outside of Harrisonville. The family runs farm implement dealerships as well as a 1,600-acre farm.

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