BOLIVAR, Mo. — Missouri Gov. Mike Parson announced his bid for a full four-year term on Sunday surrounded by hundreds of cheering supporters who waved red "Mike Works for MO" signs during the governor's address in the Bolivar High School auditorium.
"We believe that everyone should have the opportunity to pursue the American Dream. If you are willing to work, that dream should never be out of reach for anyone, regardless of what their background is or where they came from," said Parson, a Republican. "That's why I feel the call to serve again."
Though Parson, 63, dotted his speech with notes on his biography and bipartisan accomplishments, he also previewed potential lines of attack as the Republican prepares to face Democratic Auditor Nicole Galloway next year.
Parson, never known for political flame-throwing, delivered several partisan jabs during his speech — criticizing national Democrats for expanded social programs and plans to tackle climate change through a "Green New Deal."
"We are actually seeing the rise of socialism on the left, and those who want to push us away from capitalism and take away our freedoms," Parson said. "We see politicians on the left outdoing each other with one extreme policy over another.
"I want to create opportunities for education. Key word, 'opportunities,'" Parson said. "When these politicians say the word 'free,' we all know what that means. That means that you and I are going to have to pay for it. Because when it comes to government, nothing is free."
He also noted a 2017 instance when a University City Democrat "called for the assassination of the president of the United States."
But, Parson has emphasized improving education and infrastructure during his tenure, and he continued to advocate for addressing bread-and-butter issues during his speech.
Twice in the opening minutes of Parson's announcement, protesters rose, chanting "shame on Parson" and unfurling banners. One banner criticized a puzzling drop in Medicaid rolls during Parson's administration.
If Parson secures the GOP's nomination in August 2020 — he faces no big-name competition — he will likely face Galloway in the November 2020 general election.
“Missouri families can’t afford four more years of Governor Parson," Galloway said in a statement. "Nearly 100,000 kids have lost their health coverage, rural hospitals continue to close, school districts are going to four-day weeks, and gun violence is ripping our communities apart. This Governor is out of answers, except to deliver for the well-connected insiders who get what they want while Missouri families continue to struggle."
His only GOP primary competition so far is state Rep. Jim Neely, R-Cameron, who has far fewer resources and a lack of support from party insiders.
“This primary shouldn’t be a coronation for myself or anyone else," Neely said.
Parson is the former sheriff of Polk County and was elected to the Missouri House in 2004, representing Bolivar, a southwest Missouri town of 10,000 people north of Springfield.
He was elected to the state Senate in 2010 and served there until becoming lieutenant governor in 2017. Raised in Wheatland, Mo., in nearby Hickory County, Parson served six years in the U.S. Army.
Parson made his announcement with his wife, First Lady Teresa Parson, by his side. They have two adult children, Kelly and Stephanie, and six grandchildren.
Parson ascended to the state's top job on June 1, 2018, the day then-Gov. Eric Greitens, a fellow Republican, resigned following months of scandal — including allegations of sexual assault and campaign finance violations — that engulfed his administration.
Parson promised during his swearing in to bring "honor, integrity and transparency" back to the office.
He has brought a low-key demeanor to his work, a conventional Republican style that stood in contrast to the "conservative outsider" brand Greitens honed through an abrasive strategy that took aim at establishment Republicans and Democrats alike.
Not wanting to be seen as elbowing Greitens out of the way, Parson in early 2018 avoided public criticism of the then-governor as his administration spiraled.
Their most public disagreement had to do with policy.
Greitens in December 2017 moved to halt Missouri's participation in the federal low-income housing tax credit program, which he described as a taxpayer-funded boondoggle for developers.
The moved roiled a politically powerful industry that has sprung up around the credits. There have been suggestions that the industry was behind $120,000 paid to the attorney of the man whose ex-wife had an affair with Greitens.
Though Parson supports the credits, he has so far not moved to reinstate them.
Parson as governor
In office, he has focused attention on initiatives he says will boost the state's workforce and modernize its infrastructure.
“When we try to make everything a priority, the fact is nothing is truly a priority,” Parson said in his January 2019 State of the State address.
Despite headwinds from within his own party, Parson won $10 million for a new scholarship program for adults 25 years and older, and won permission to borrow $301 million to fix bridges across the state — the first major new infusion of cash into the state's road fund in years.
His team also overcame a 27-hour filibuster by conservatives who tried to derail a $25 million deal-closing fund that gives Missouri a negotiating tool to finalize business investment opportunities. Opponents described it as a slush fund.
Though he has eschewed brash partisan tactics, Parson has nonetheless invited criticism from Democrats, who furiously oppose a law he signed in May banning most abortions at eight weeks of pregnancy. The law was temporarily halted last month as abortion rights advocates challenge it in court.
"All life is precious!" Parson said to applause on Sunday.
Despite a request by Mayor Lyda Krewson, Parson has not advocated for concealed carry requirements in St. Louis as the city grapples with another bloody summer. Though Parson has offered Highway Patrol officers and more state funds, he has not backed backed gun control measures.
Parson's campaign roll-out had been building for months, with the governor saying he would make a major announcement soon after Labor Day.
The governor and his team have demonstrated an aptitude for fundraising. The Uniting Missouri PAC — formed in support of Parson — had nearly $2.9 million on hand as of June 30.
On Saturday alone, the PAC reported five donations totaling $123,500. The Parson for Missouri campaign committee, whose contributions are limited to $2,600, had $1.1 million as of June 30.
While the campaign cash will help the governor fund his message, Galloway has already sought to make Parson's big-dollar donations a liability.
In her campaign announcement video last month, she accused Parson of doing the bidding of corporations and lobbyists as footage of two men exchanging an envelope plays on screen.
Galloway, who faces an uphill battle in a conservative state, reported $133,000 on hand as of June 30.
Her Keep Government Accountable PAC reported $21,000 then, though it has netted several big donations in the recent weeks, including several large checks from from labor unions and law firms.