Former Missouri Speaker of the House Catherine Hanaway is pondering a run at governor in 2016.

With more than three years to go until the 2016 Missouri election for governor, the jostling has begun for the Republican nomination.

Catherine Hanaway, who made history as Missouri’s first female House speaker a decade ago, is considering returning to politics to run for governor in 2016, she said recently. She is the state’s first prominent Republican to solidly confirm she’s exploring a gubernatorial run, gauging support and talking to her family.

“My No. 1 objective for 2016 is to make sure we don’t have another Democrat governor in Missouri,” said Hanaway, a former U.S. attorney. She said factors in her decision will include, “Do I think I can be the one who wins that office?”

Within hours, Hanaway’s comments drew fire from a top campaign aide to Missouri Auditor Tom Schweich, who has not said he will run for governor but is widely believed to be planning such a move.

“I don’t think people believe Catherine Hanaway is very electable due to her opposition to concealed-carry” early in her political career, said Joseph Passanise, Schweich’s campaign treasurer. “I think people also are rightly concerned that she’s been out of politics for 10 years.”

He added: “She doesn’t have high name recognition outside the St. Louis area. She should consider a lesser office.”

The sparring may be viewed as almost welcome by the Missouri GOP, which has struggled lately with the perception that it has no potential standard bearer going into the next election cycle. The issue is exacerbated by Attorney General Chris Koster’s early and yet-unchallenged bid for the 2016 Democratic nomination for governor.

Hanaway, 49, of St. Louis County, ran for secretary of state in 2004 and narrowly lost to Democrat Robin Carnahan.

Hanaway served as U.S. attorney for the Eastern District from 2005 to 2009. Now an attorney in private practice, she has previously left the door open to a future statewide run. But in her most specific comments on the issue to date, she said she’s being encouraged by supporters to jump into the next governor’s race.

“I have been traveling around the state and attending events and talking to people and people have been reaching out to me to encourage me to run,” she said in an interview.

She said she also was considering her children, ages 15 and 11. “Is it the right time for our family? Can we make the family finances work? … We’re staring over the horizon at college tuition.”

U.S. Rep. Ann Wagner, R-Mo., an old friend and ally to Hanaway, disputed the assertion that Hanaway is at a disadvantage because she hasn’t previously won statewide office. She said the network of statewide support that Hanaway built as House speaker would make her a strong candidate.

“I’m strongly encouraging her to run for governor in 2016,” Wagner said.

It once would have been considered lunacy to start publicly pondering an election more than three years out. But the contentious political culture nationally has pushed the election cycle forward to the point that one cycle begins almost as soon as the previous one ends.

In Missouri, Koster, the Democratic two-term attorney general, has upped the stakes by confirming earlier this year that he is seeking his party’s 2016 nomination for governor.

The apparent strategy is to consolidate support early and become seen as the inevitable nominee before anyone else has a chance to put up a fight. So far, it appears to be working; Koster is the only serious Democrat in the field so far.

Republicans predict that Koster’s strategy will backfire by putting him under public scrutiny for far longer than most candidates have to endure it.

“I think Chris Koster will find that three years of being in the spotlight will get old,” warned Dave Spence, the businessman who was the GOP’s unsuccessful candidate for governor in 2012.

But Koster’s early stake in the race has prompted persistent questions about who the GOP would be putting up. The usual reserve of top officials and former candidates have remained noncommital.

As for Schweich, the necessity of running for re-election in 2014 makes it untoward, at least, to start talking about 2016, even if others are doing it.

Even as Schweich’s campaign treasurer pointed out that Hanaway has never won statewide office as Schweich has, Schweich himself stuck with the script, declining to discuss his future plans beyond next year.

“I’m completely focused on my campaign for re-election as Missouri state auditor” in 2014, said Schweich.

In a recent email sent to GOP supporters, Schweich suggested that any talk of 2016 races this year is “jumping the gun” and potentially hurtful to the party. “Declaring a candidacy more than three years before the 2016 elections undermines our 2014 effort, and it opens the 2016 candidates up to three years of media scrutiny,” he warned.

Another Republican who has been mentioned for governor, U.S. Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer, is in the same situation, facing a 2014 re-election campaign between now and the governor’s race.

“I can’t keep people from speculating (about a gubernatorial run), but we’re going to focus on ’14 and re-election,” Luetkemeyer said Tuesday. “You take it an election at a time.”

Spence said he hasn’t “even looked at that” and for now is enjoying life as a private citizen. “I’d be lying if I said people haven’t asked. They seem to ask once an hour,” Spence said. “I haven’t decided. At this point, it’s nice to take a step back into the life I had.”

Millionaire former U.S. Senate candidate John Brunner has methodically kept himself in the public eye on Twitter and Facebook lately but has yet to reveal what if any office he’s aiming at. “At the present time I have not made any decision,” he said in an email.

Other prominent Republican names are apparently already out of the running for governor in three years.

Missouri House Speaker Tim Jones is widely expected to run for attorney general in 2016, though he hasn’t formally announced.

Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder also has made no announcements but is rumored to be gearing up for another try at the 8th Congressional seat out of southeastern Missouri that he unsuccessfully sought in this year’s special election.

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