Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon steps forward, but toward what?

September 19, 2013

For a popular two-term governor of what has traditionally been an important swing state, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon (D) has carved a decidedly limited profile outside the Show Me State.

That's beginning to change.


Gov. Jay Nixon makes a point during a news conference at the Missouri State Capitol in Jefferson City, Mo., on Sept. 11. (Orlin Wagner/Associated Press)

After a high-profile victory over the GOP-dominated state legislature's tax cut package last week, Nixon is starting to take on more of a national profile.

To wit: The New York Times ran a lengthy piece on his tax fight last week; Nixon will be beside President Obama in the state Friday at an event playing up the state's auto industry; and Nixon is set to speak at next week's Clinton Global Initiative in New York to talk about disaster response. (Nixon earned plaudits for his work after the 2011 tornado that leveled Joplin, Mo.)

In an interview with Post Politics, Nixon said that, after four-plus years on the job, he's starting to feel more comfortable bringing his message to the national stage.

"My focus wasn’t as much on the broader national trends," Nixon said of his first term. "Now, as you get into your second term ... I just think there is a zone here where we can solve difficult issues and move forward, and I’m going to be talking about that in a little broader way than I have been the first four years here."

Nixon, 57, played up his state's diversity and its former status as a political bellwether. In the century before 2008, it voted against the winner of the presidential election just once. It has since leaned more Republican.

"I have a deep interest in Missouri’s — what I consider to be — solid mainstream voice being heard in a broader zone," Nixon said.

Nixon's approval rating hasn't been measured in any recent polls, but he has consistently been in strong position and won reelection in 2012 by 12 points — even as President Obama lost the state by 10 points.

For any other term-limited governor in a similar position, we may be talking about a promotion or, at the very least, the next political step.

Nixon, for his part, rules out a run for the Senate — an office he has already sought and lost twice. "It’s not a place that I would want to be," he says of Congress.

But while he says no to the Senate, he's more noncommittal out the idea of running for president in 2016 or — perhaps more likely — being someone's vice presidential running mate.

"It’s just really not on my mind right now," he said. "I just think you stay focused on trying to be an effective governor and bringing people together and trying to get things done. And I’ll worry about myself on down the road.

"But I've been committed to public service, and so I'm clearly always open to new ways to serve."

A presidential run for Nixon isn't on anybody's radar, but he's certainly built the kind of profile that would fit a Cabinet pick or even a running mate. Nixon served four terms as the state's attorney general before becoming governor, and if he could somehow help a Democratic nominee like Hillary Clinton compete in Missouri in 2016, his stock for an appointment or a vice presidential pick would certainly rise.

(For what it's worth, a Cabinet appointment during Obama's presidency would hand the governorship to GOP Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder — not exactly an ideal outcome for national Democrats.)

For now, Nixon is enjoying his legislative victory, in which he prevented veto-proof GOP supermajorities in the state legislature from overriding his veto of its tax cut package. Fifteen Republicans in the state House declined to vote for the override.

The package would have cut the state's corporate tax rate from 6.25 percent to 3.25 percent and and cut the personal income tax rate from 6 percent to 5.5 percent. Nixon said these cuts would have had done huge harm to the state's education system, among other services.

Nixon credited the decades he has spent in public office for helping him figure out which GOP state lawmakers held districts that would balk at such cuts to education. He targeted these lawmakers — many of them in rural districts in Southern Missouri — and got enough of them to decide against a veto override.

(The state legislature also failed to override his veto of a bill that would have prevented the state from enforcing federal gun restrictions.)

Nixon especially seems to relish the fact that he beat back an effort to override the veto from Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R), who visited the state and ran ads urging the legislature to uphold the tax cuts. Missouri is one of several states Perry has visited to lure its businesses to Texas.

Nixon called Perry an "affable chap" and said they have a fine relationship, but he also clearly took issue with the Texas governor meddling in Missouri's affairs.

Nixon said Perry didn't affect one vote in the state legislature, but that Perry's involvement "absolutely" rubbed him the wrong way.

"I don’t think a governor goes to another state," Nixon said. "That’s the wrong tone to take, and it’s clearly not the best way to build the economy of our country for the future. Moving pieces around the chessboard is not how we move forward. Having a simplistic economic view that if you move a company from one state to another, America's better — that's just not true."

Nixon suggested that Perry's tactics better befit a Civil War era United States.

"People that define that bar too low, as a tussle between the states, that ended 150 years ago," Nixon said. "We've got a world economy."

Update 2:30 p.m.: Perry spokeswoman Lucy Nashed responds:

"Gov. Nixon 's argument is disingenuous. Companies have a choice of where to locate. States that have low taxes, smart regulations, fair courts and skilled workforces can not only compete for and attract these employers, they also have a solid economic foundation that allows companies to grow and create jobs. This success benefits both the states individually and our nation as a whole."

Aaron Blake covers national politics and writes regularly for The Fix.
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