O'FALLON, Mo. (AP) — Republican Missouri Gov. Mike Parson and his Democratic opponent spent much of a candidate forum on Friday sparring over the governor's response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Parson and Democratic candidate Nicole Galloway, along with Libertarian candidate Rik Combs and Green Party candidate Jerome Bauer, spoke at the forum in Columbia hosted by the Missouri Press Association and KOMU-TV.
Galloway, the state auditor, is the only Democrat holding statewide office in Missouri. She used her opening statement and several other opportunities to attack Parson's handling of the virus that has sickened 139,164 Missourians and killed 2,395 since the pandemic began. Those numbers included 2,008 new confirmed cases announced Friday and 136 new deaths, though the state health department said all of those deaths occurred prior to October but were just reported.
Galloway called for "a complete reset" on the state's approach to COVID-19, one driven by science and data.
"He's had his chance," Galloway said of Parson. "He's failed the test of leadership. He's just in over his head."
Since the onset of the virus, Parson has urged Missourians to wear masks, practice social distancing and practice hand hygiene. But unlike many governors, he has not issued any mandates. Several local cities and counties have instead issued their own stricter guidelines since Parson allowed Missouri to reopen June 16.
Parson lauded his "balanced approach" that he said has brought the death rate down significantly — from 8% of people infected in April to currently 0.7%. Meanwhile, he said the state's 7% unemployment rate is far below what experts had predicted, and more than 8 in 10 Missouri school children are back in the classroom.
"You've got to be able to deal with the virus," Parson said. "You've got to be able to deal with the economy. You've got to be able to get kids back in school safely."
But Galloway cited some concerning statistics, such as a big spike in hospitalizations, which reached record daily totals multiple times in September and October. The number of people hospitalized in Missouri on June 15 was 590; on Friday, it was 1,303. Much of the spike has been in rural areas.
"We are living the governor's coronavirus-fighting strategy right now," Galloway said. "It's not working."
Parson is a former Polk County sheriff with a strong focus on law enforcement in a year when both St. Louis and Kansas City are seeing big jumps in killings as well as non-fatal shootings. He has stood firmly with police amid racial injustice protests, and pledged he will "continue to support the men and women who wear those uniforms every day."
Galloway, 38, said she also supports police but wants to add funding for things like health care and education that address systemic problems before they lead to crime. She also denied Republican claims that she wants to defund police.
But Parson noted that Galloway has the support of people who do advocate defunding police, including Cori Bush, an activist and St. Louis Democrat who upset longtime U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay in Missouri's 1st District primary in August and is heavily favored to win in November.
"You might not say it here in this forum with everybody watching, but it does matter who you run with," Parson told Galloway. "It does matter when you run with those people who do want to defund the police in this state."
Neither Parson nor Galloway were initially elected to their current jobs.
Galloway was the Boone County treasurer in 2015 when state Auditor Tom Schweich died. Then-Gov. Jay Nixon appointed Galloway to fill the remainder of Schweich's term. She defeated Republican challenger Sandra McDowell by about 6 percentage points in the 2018 election.
Parson is a former state legislator who ran successfully for lieutenant governor in 2016. He ascended to the state's top job after fellow Republican Eric Greitens resigned in June 2018.
Greitens had been charged earlier in 2018 with felony invasion of privacy in St. Louis for allegedly taking a compromising photo of a woman during a 2015 affair. The charge was later dropped, but Greitens also faced ethics investigations prior to his resignation.
The forum had been scheduled for Sept. 25 but was postponed until Friday after Parson and his wife tested positive for the coronavirus. Neither he nor his wife, Teresa, became seriously ill.