Mo. voters oust Rep. Ike Skelton after 34 years

The Associated Press
Wednesday, November 3, 2010; 1:08 PM

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Through four economic recessions, five presidents and 17 elections, Democratic Rep. Ike Skelton prevailed at the ballot box by building a reputation as a military expert and social conservative. Until now.

Missouri voters ousted the 78-year-old chairman of the House Armed Services Committee on Tuesday in favor of Republican Vicky Hartzler, a former home economics teacher and state lawmaker who cast Skelton as an ally of President Barack Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Skelton, who prided himself on staying connected to constituents, ultimately was brought down by a perception that he had lost touch with his rural west-central Missouri district, which gave Obama just 38 percent of its vote two years ago. Since then, Obama's popularity has waned further in Missouri.

"I think Ike is an honorable guy," said Mike Sadler, 54, of Sedalia, who said he backed Skelton when he first ran for Congress in 1976 and had stuck with him. "But it's time for a change. He definitely does not represent Midwest values anymore."

Hartzler, 50, of Harrisonville, gained support from tea party activists and hammered at Skelton for supporting the economic stimulus act, bank bailout and climate control legislation. Her ads trumpeted vote-tracking services showing Skelton recently has sided with fellow Democrats about 95 percent of the time - a sharp contrast to a decade ago, when he voted with his party barely three-fifths of the time.

"The people of the 4th (District) are just fed up with Nancy Pelosi's liberal agenda and disappointed that our representative has squandered his vote with her," Hartzler said on Election Day.

Skelton called Hartzler to concede Tuesday night - something he had never done before in a half-century of politics - and then gathered his family to his side to thank supporters in his hometown of Lexington.

"Representing the people in this district in the state of Missouri has been the political highlight of my life," Skelton said.

Until Tuesday, his closest call had been a 10 percentage point victory in 1982, when redistricting changed his territory. Skelton spent much of his adult life in public office, starting as a prosecutor in his home county in 1957. He won election to the state Senate in 1970.

An astute military historian, Skelton helped build up Missouri's two military installations. As Whiteman Air Force Base was losing its cache of long-range nuclear missiles, Skelton secured its future in the late 1980s by getting the Defense Department to place the new B-2 bomber there. After redistricting made Skelton the representative for Fort Leonard Wood in 1983, the number of troops undergoing training there more than quadrupled and the post's mission expanded from the Army to all branches of military service.

The soft-spoken Skelton never was keen on large crowds. He eschewed formal debates. But he adopted a modern campaign this year - complete with Twitter posts and professional campaign consultants. And he tried to focus the race on his strong suit, airing ads stressing his support for the military and questioning Hartzler's.

But Hartzler pulled together her own coalition of veterans to express their disappointment in Skelton, and incoming Republican House Leader John Boehner pledged to support her for a seat on the Armed Services Committee.

For the first time she could recall, Lynnette Hunter, 61, of Sweet Springs, decided to cast her vote against Skelton. She said the country's broader problems required a new voice.

"We've got to start getting rid of what's in there now," she said. "We need a thorough House-cleaning."

© 2010 The Associated Press