Hartzler challenges Skelton's hold on Mo. District

October 20, 2010

Vicky Hartzler has written an entire book about how to run a successful political campaign. Her foundation: prayer and preparation.

Now Hartzler, a Republican, is putting her strategy to the test by challenging one of the most successful politicians in Congress, longtime Democratic Rep. Ike Skelton of west-central Missouri.

The chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Skelton first won election in 1976 and has been regularly re-elected with about two-thirds of the vote in a district that otherwise leans toward Republicans. He’s done it by cultivating a conservative reputation and capitalizing on his military expertise.

But Hartzler contends Skelton has become an ally of Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and has lost touch with the people he represents _ a message that strikes at the very heart of Skelton’s political approach.

“The liberals in Washington, D.C., are ruining the country,” Hartzler says. “Somebody needs to stand up to Nancy Pelosi and say no, and our current congressman isn’t.”

Skelton defends his political independence and rarely misses a chance to quote a political maxim he first heard from then-Sen. John F. Kennedy, of Massachusetts, shortly after Skelton had graduated from law school in 1956.

“If you stay close to the people, the people will stay close to you _ that’s what I live,” Skelton says.

Skelton, 78, of Lexington, doesn’t engage in formal debates, much to Hartzler’s dismay. And he doesn’t typically deliver speeches to huge audiences. That’s not his style.

This past Saturday morning, Skelton rode in the Founder’s Day parade in Sedalia. That afternoon, he was on the football field at the University of Central Missouri for the coin toss with Brig. Gen. Scott Vander Hamm of Whiteman Air Force Base. Later that evening, Skelton paid $35 for a blackberry pie at a Pulaski County Democrats event.

Skelton spent much of the next day shaking hands and chitchatting with people at the Heritage Days festival in Warsaw. His lunch: a hot dog and fried potatoes on a downtown sidewalk.

Hartzler, 50, of Harrisonville, knows the importance of such community activities. Her book, “Running God’s Way,” includes a whole chapter about meeting prospective voters at parades and events. Among her advice: wear a name badge; inquire about people’s jobs and families, and listen; work hard to remember names; and walk whenever possible at parades, accompanied by an entourage of supporters.

Hartzler was a home economics teacher before she won election to the Missouri House of Representatives in 1994. After six years, she opted against running again so she could spend more time at home as a mother. In 2004, she served as spokeswoman for a group backing a successful ballot measure that added a ban on gay marriage to the Missouri Constitution.

In her book, published in 2008, Hartzler stresses the importance of prayer in campaigns _ for guidance, safety and favor when going door-to-door, for example. She also includes plenty of practical advise, such as how to wrap a rubber band around a clipboard to lessen the chance of losing the pencil.

When it comes to ads, “make sure you’ve established yourself as a credible candidate before bringing up negative points about the person currently in office,” Hartzler writes in her book.

Skelton and Hartzler both have resorted to negative ads.

Skelton has based his campaign largely on his support for military troops and veterans and has questioned Hartzler’s commitment to them by referencing her votes against various bills in 1990s. Hartzler, who has an explanation for each vote, contends Skelton’s campaign is lying and distorting her pro-military record.

More recently, Skelton has been running ads noting Hartzler voted against a 1998 bill placing a measure allowing concealed guns on the Missouri ballot. Skelton also notes he is endorsed by the National Rifle Association.

Hartzler responded by releasing a letter from the NRA political action committee affirming that the NRA supported her vote against putting the concealed guns measure on Missouri’s ballot, because the group wanted the Legislature to simply approve the measure itself.

One of her most forceful ads against Skelton shows him uttering a vulgarity on the House floor and suggests that is what Skelton is saying to those who “disagree with his support of Nancy Pelosi’s extreme agenda.”

Hartzler cites vote-tracking services showing Skelton has sided with the Democratic Party position about 95 percent of the time.

Says Skelton: “That’s nonsense.” Skelton said he opposed President Barack Obama and most other Democrats on what was arguably the biggest vote of the year _ the health care overhaul legislation.

Skelton is banking that his reputation as a staunch supporter of the military will supersede his party label in an election year that doesn’t appear too favorable for Democrats. He’s counting on the continued support of the likes of Rhonda Morris, of Sedalia, whose father and sister both served in the Air Force.

“I typically vote for Ike,” she said. “He’s done a lot for the military.”

Hartzler is hoping that some Skelton supporters are so fed up with the policies coming from Washington that they are finally ready for change. She has been getting help from the likes of Royce Hudson, a retired Army veteran from Jefferson City, who says he is done voting for Skelton.

“I don’t think Obama needs another vote,” Hudson said. “This year, in my opinion, he has lost his Midwest values.”

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