The Magazine

Taking a Blunt Approach

Missouri's governor balances the budget without raising taxes.

May 22, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 34 • By FRED BARNES
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Jefferson City, Missouri

THERE'S A SUREFIRE WAY for a Republican governor to lose favor with the public, the press, and Democrats: wipe out a state's budget deficit without raising taxes. This inevitably involves trimming spending on Medicaid, the out-of-control health care program for the poor that's become the largest expenditure in virtually every state's budget. Faced with a $1.1 billion deficit last year, Missouri governor Matt Blunt chose to restrain spending--especially Medicaid spending--and not to increase taxes. For months, he was pilloried in the Missouri media for cutting off Medicaid recipients. And his approval rating dropped in one poll to 33 percent.

Now, a year later, things are different. It turns out there is political life after spending cuts. Not only has Blunt's popularity risen, he has money to spend on schools and colleges and senior citizens. His spending cuts helped produce a surplus ($80 million) this year. Along with sweeping tort reform and a crackdown on excesses in workman's compensation, his no-new-taxes approach improved the business climate and drove down unemployment.

When General Motors announced it would boost its investment in a Missouri plant, the company's vice president, Joe Spielman, praised Blunt. "A lot of people talk about making their state or their community a good place to do business," he said. "I've got to tell you that this governor has delivered."

At 35, Blunt is the youngest governor in the country. He is not a political visionary, but a traditional conservative determined to hold down taxes and streamline government. "He'd find a way to sell the capitol and lease it back before he'd raise taxes," a lobbyist here says. And Blunt subscribes to a simple rule of politics and life: No pain, no gain.

He comes from a political family. His grandfather was a state legislator. His father, Roy Blunt, was secretary of state for eight years and now is Republican whip, the third-ranking post, in the U.S. House. Blunt graduated from the Naval Academy. After five years in the Navy, he arrived home in Springfield in southwest Missouri in 1998 with no firm career plans. As luck would have it, a state house seat in Springfield had become vacant. He ran and won, then ran statewide for secretary of state in 2000 and won again.

Blunt had made enough of a name for himself by 2004 that he was unopposed for the Republican nomination for governor. His Democratic opponent, Claire McCaskill, was formidable. She had defeated the incumbent governor, Bob Holden, in the Democratic primary. She ridiculed Blunt's youth and inexperience, and he zinged her on taxes. The election was so close McCaskill didn't concede until after midnight. Blunt won 51 percent to 48 percent, running behind President Bush's 53 percent in Missouri.

In capturing the governorship, Blunt rode a Republican wave that has transformed the politics of Missouri. For the first time in 84 years, Republicans control the governor's mansion, the state senate (23-11), and the state house of representatives (97-66). This may be the high-water mark for Republican control. Republicans expect to lose a few legislative seats this fall but retain control of both houses.

Harry Truman wouldn't recognize his home state. The biggest partisan realignment has come in rural Missouri, where conservative Democrats have turned into reliable Republican voters. The political map of the state is now mostly red with a strip of blue across the middle--the I-70 corridor--from St. Louis to Kansas City, the most populous cities, and running through liberal Columbia, home of the University of Missouri.

Republican victories statewide are hardly guaranteed. In fact, Republican senator Jim Talent is in a tight race for reelection this fall against McCaskill, currently the state auditor. "But Missouri has really changed," says Republican consultant Tony Feather. "It wouldn't be considered a swing state now."

Blunt symbolizes the change. He's neither glamorous nor especially charismatic. He's slight--maybe trim would be a kinder description--and has a gap between his front teeth. He won not as a lone wolf but as an unapologetic Republican. His campaign relied on conventional Republican issues like taxes, spending, government efficiency, and the economy.

As governor, "Matt is a consummate workhorse, not show horse," says Feather. "His usual expression is a perpetual poker-faced seriousness rarely graced by a smile," wrote Steve Kraske of the Kansas City Star. His emphasis on spending cuts has given Blunt a reputation for being cold-hearted, and he has done nothing to soften that image. He boasts of never second-guessing his decisions and sleeping well at night.