JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) - Suburban St. Louis businessman Dave Spence turned back several Republican rivals Tuesday to earn the right challenge Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon in a campaign that likely will focus on who is best equipped to manage Missouri's economy and government as it rebounds from a recession.
A newcomer to politics, Spence is someone whom most Missourians never had heard of a year ago - even though he had made a fortune from a business that makes plastic bottles for pharmaceuticals and personal care products such as lotion and shampoo.
But he poured nearly $3.3 million of his own money into his Republican primary, broadcasting ads that described himself as a "job creator" while suggesting that Missouri has fallen behind economically under Nixon's leadership. To aid businesses, Spence wants to limit liability lawsuits and workers' compensation claims and get rid of what he calls "needless bureaucracy."
"My pro-jobs and pro-business message is what people want to hear," Spence told The Associated Press after winning his primary.
Nixon faced only nominal opposition in the Democratic primary. But he nonetheless has aired TV ads highlighting how he has worked with Republicans and Democrats alike to avoid tax increases, cut spending, balance the budget and maintain a good credit rating for the state. Nixon, 56, is seeking his second term as governor after spending a record 16 years as attorney general and six previously in the state Senate.
The two candidates present starkly different viewpoints of Missouri's economy. In an election night speech, Nixon noted that Missouri's unemployment rate is below the national average and asserted that it has dropped more dramatically than almost every other state. He touted that, during his tenure, Missouri expanded a college scholarship program and froze tuition for two years at public universities.
"We have more work to do, but we're moving forward," Nixon said. He added: "I can say without doubt that I am more optimistic than ever before about the future of our state."
Spence, meanwhile, pointed to rankings that listed Missouri near the bottom in job growth and per capita funding for higher education in recent years, while noting that the state's largest school districts are unaccredited and nearly 1 million residents receive food stamps.
"People are saying enough is enough," Spence said Tuesday night. "Enough of the career politicians. It's time for real-world leaders with real-world experience to get in there and straighten this out."
JoAnne Pickett-Naylor, 62, of Jefferson City, said she voted for Spence partly because she liked the message of his TV ads.
"People need jobs, because you can't keep the economy going if you don't have revenues," she said.
Spence, 54, stepped down last year as president and CEO of Alpha Packaging to focus on his gubernatorial campaign. He bought the business in 1985, only a few years after graduating from the University of Missouri-Columbia with a home economics degree. Spence touts that he transformed the company over a couple decades from 15 employees and annual sales of $350,000 to a firm with 800 employees and nearly $200 million in annual sales. Spence sold Alpha Packaging in 2010.
Spence also has served as chairman of Legacy Packaging, another St. Louis-based pharmaceutical packaging firm. And he was on the board of St. Louis-based Reliance Bancshares when it decided in early 2011 that it couldn't repay $40 million from the federal government's Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP.
Spence's involvement with the bank has been frequently cited by Democrats as well as Kansas City attorney Bill Randles, one of Spence's opponents in the Republican primary.
Randles traveled Missouri extensively to attend local Republican events but never was able to raise much cash to counter Spence's message on TV. Randles had sought to position himself to the right of Spence - embracing, for example, a move to eliminate the state's income tax and replace it with a sales tax.
Anti-abortion activist and businessman Fred Sauer, of suburban St. Louis, poured several hundred thousand dollars into his gubernatorial bid, but didn't start campaigning until a few months before the election. Sauer's platform included a reinstatement of Missouri's campaign contribution limits, which were repealed by the Republican-led Legislature in 2008.