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Analysis: Missouri Gov. Nixon walking political middle

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — Picture a rural dirt road — the kind where grass grows in the middle between to two tracks about the width of a truck tire. Politically, one path is trod by Republicans; the other by Democrats; and Gov. Jay Nixon is walking down that grass in the middle.

A year out from his re-election campaign, Nixon has just completed an annual bill signing season in which he managed to appeal to fellow Democrats by vetoing several politically charged bills while simultaneously appeasing Republicans by allowing legislation on several of their hot-button issues to become law.

"He's positioned himself pretty well in the middle of the political spectrum," said Peverill Squire, a political science professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia.

The Republican-led Legislature sent Nixon nearly 150 bills this year. He vetoed 14, allowed three to become law without his signature and signed the rest by last week's deadline.

The vetoes included several high-profile issues that split largely along partisan lines.

Chief among those was a veto of a congressional redistricting plan that eliminated a Democratic-leaning district in the St. Louis area to account for Missouri's loss of a seat under the 2010 Census. Although a few Democrats sided with Republicans to override Nixon's veto, most believed the map generally favored Republicans.

Nixon also upheld the Democratic Party position by vetoing legislation that could have required voters to show government-issued photo identification.

"I think to some extent, Governor Nixon is looking to mend fences with the Democrats," said George Connor, head of the political science department at Missouri State University. Most notably, some Democrats have been miffed because they don't believe Nixon did enough to help their candidates in 2010, when Republicans won both statewide offices on the ballot, ousted a Democratic congressman and gained seats in the state House and Senate.

Nixon vetoed a bill that would have made it harder to win workplace discrimination cases, traveling to St. Louis to do so in front of an audience that included minorities and woman — groups that tend to vote for Democrats more than Republicans.

The governor also vetoed a bill that would have moved the state's presidential primary from February to March to comply with national Republican and Democratic party guidelines. Nixon cited other reasons for vetoing the bill and said he supported the proposed change to the presidential primary. But the bill's demise has a greater effect on Republicans than Democrats, because President Barack Obama is not expected to face a serious challenge in the next year's Democratic primary whereas a large field will be vying for the Republican nomination.

After Nixon vetoed the elections bill, Democrats issued a statement defending his action while Republicans issued a statement decrying it.

That veto "seems to stick it to the Republicans more than the Democrats," Connor said.

Governors tend to veto bills for one of three reasons — policy objections, partisan politics or to position themselves for a re-election campaign, Connor said. While Nixon sited policy grounds for his vetoes, several of his decisions also advanced the other two goals, Connor said.

The same criteria can be applied to bills that governors sign or allow to become law.

Nixon walked a political tightrope by allowing a bill imposing new restrictions on late-term abortions to become law without his signature. Although a fair number of Democrats joined Republicans in passing that legislation, other segments of the Democratic constituency oppose further limits on abortion rights.

"Not taking a stand on that makes it a little bit more palatable when you're running for re-election," Connor said.

Nixon similarly allowed another Republican-favored bill to become law without his signature. That bill could allow Missouri to ignore some requirements of Obama's new federal health care law, if other states join a health care compact and Congress consents to its creation. Nixon said the bill was unlikely to have any practical effect, because Congress has not — and may never — allow states to form such a health care compact.

Had he vetoed the legislation, Republicans could have linked Nixon to Obama and the federal health care law during the 2012 elections. Nixon won in 2008 by running independently from Obama and picking up the votes of tens of thousands of Missouri residents who backed Republican presidential candidate John McCain.

Nixon signed legislation lowering the age to get concealed gun permits in Missouri. And to the dismay of some Democrats and social service groups, he also signed legislation requiring drug testing for some welfare recipients. He did so without any explanation for his decision.

Democratic Rep. Jason Holsman, who voted against the bill, told The Kansas City Star he was not surprised that Nixon signed it.

"It was a politically expedient thing to do," said Holsman, of Kansas City. "If we didn't have to worry about elections, he would probably veto it."

Squire said Nixon likely has done just enough for ardent Democrats that he doesn't have to worry about them deserting him.

"On occasions he leans the Democrats' way; on other occasions he's done things the Republicans are comfortable with," Squire said. "He has a good sense of public opinion, he has a good sense of things that could be used against him, and he's signed bills and vetoed bills with those things in mind."


EDITOR'S NOTE — David A. Lieb has covered government and politics for The Associated Press since 1995.

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