On the Trail: Analyzing the gubernatorial aspirants' pitches — and the weight of endorsements

Aug 12, 2016

It’s been less than two weeks since Missouri voters chose nominees for governor. And it’s fair to say that neither candidate wasted much time in fashioning their general election message — or sharply questioning their opponent’s worthiness.

This reporter spent the past few days watching and listening to Chris Koster and Eric Greitens' post-primary speeches. And from what the two men are saying on the stump, Missourians are in for a very contentious campaign — and discourse that may appear familiar.

Pointing to his military and philanthropic resume, Republican Eric Greitens is positioning himself as a status quo-shaking outsider, eager to upend Jefferson City. He contrasts himself to Koster who, Greitens contended during his primary victory speech, the Democrat was "so caught up in backroom wheeling and dealing that he has forgotten who he is supposed to serve.

“We’re tired of the fake and failed leadership that’s coming out of Jefferson City. And we’re tired of seeing a land of great people and great potential fall victim to the intrigue of career politicians,” Greitens said to several hundred people in Chesterfield. “If Chris Koster were going to do something to help the people and help the state of Missouri, he would have done it already. But he hasn’t. And he won’t.”

Koster is taking a different approach to the general election campaign. Soon after he stepped foot in a union hall in St. Louis last week, he provided some fairly friendly words to the three Republicans that Greitens defeated. He contended that Republican voters tossed Catherine Hanaway, Peter Kinder and John Brunner under the bus “in favor of a guy with a machine gun who is a motivational speaker by trade and pledges to mow down, plow down government as we know it in our state.”

“Our job is to take this frustration and to channel it into the only path that will work for this state. And that is bringing people together in a way that only bipartisanship and listening to one another can,” Koster said. “I’ve never asked myself how many sit-ups my governor can do. I agree with the folks in New Jersey, it just doesn’t matter. What matters is finding ways to make progress in this state. People are so frustrated that we have not had progress in this state really since term limits came in. We used to have a very experienced legislature. There was great expertise that would grow up in that building.

“And I passionately believe that a solution to an inexperienced legislature cannot possibly be an inexperienced governor,” he added.

Some members of Greitens’ campaign staff dismissed Koster’s argument, adding that they would be more than happy to engage in a "resume" battle. But just as the "experience versus outsider" argument rages on nationally, a similar debate is about to unfold throughout the Show Me State.

Koster nabs more agriculture endorsements

With the dust settling on the general election match-up, there's been some attention this week over the political impact and importance of endorsements.

Case in point: Koster scooped up some agriculture-related endorsements that typically go to Republican candidates. In addition to the Missouri Farm Bureau’s backing, Koster recently received the blessing of the Missouri Corn Growers Association and the Missouri Soybean Association. 

Chris Koster received backing recently from several major agricultural groups, including the Missouri Farm Bureau.
Credit Missouri Soybean Association

“Attorney General Koster further showed his commitment to Missouri’s top industry, which is agriculture, by advocating for biodiesel,” said Ronnie Russell, a Richmond resident who serves on the Missouri Soybean Association’s policy committee, during a conference call. “And he’s also been very supportive and maintained a very pro-agriculture voting record.”

So why are these agricultural endorsements so unusual? When more rural Democrats existed in the Missouri General Assembly, they often spoke out against groups like the Missouri Farm Bureau. More recently, Koster was on the opposing side from former Sen. Wes Shoemyer and former Lt. Gov. Joe Maxwell on the so-called “right to farm” amendment.

Koster, though, said last Saturday that there’s a long history of Democratic closeness with groups like the Missouri Farm Bureau. He pointed to the careers of people like former Sens. Jim Mathewson and Harold Caskey, two conservative Democrats he admires.

“And so, it’s imperative, I think, for a strong Democratic Party to have a strong relationship with agriculture in this state,” Koster said last Saturday. “We can’t let this party retreat into the cities. We have to understand the issues that are vital to the state’s No. 1 industry. We have to be conversant in them. We have to know their leadership. And I believe we have to promote them and put it on a pedestal as a centerpiece of economic development in this state. And that’s what I’ve done for 12 years.”

Greitens' campaign spokesman Austin Chambers told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that this past election cycle showed “that endorsements don’t move voters like they used to.” But Koster could benefit if these agriculture groups convince some out-state voters to vote for him — especially because rural Missourians tend to vot for Republicans.

What about the NRA?

Speaking of endorsements: One of the big question marks is whether the National Rifle Association will back Greitens or Koster. It's an unanswered question because a message to the NRA’s public relations department about whether the group will endorse in the governor’s race went unanswered. (NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre told the Springfield News-Leader this week his group would have more to say on the Missouri governor's race in the coming weeks.)

Credit (via Flickr/M Glasgow)

While Koster and Greitens are both generally opposed to restricting firearms, the NRA tends to endorse people with voting records over political newcomers. That’s what happened in 2012, when Koster (who has an ‘A’ rating from the NRA) received the group’s endorsement over Republican Ed Martin (who, like Greitens, received a ‘AQ’ rating). (You can read more about what those ratings mean here.)

Greitens, as alluded to early, has used television ads to showcase his support of gun rights. Asked if he would be comfortable receiving the NRA’s backing, Koster replied: “I would look forward to receiving the endorsement.”

“I’m trying to build a big tent party here. And I’m trying to bring this state together,” Koster said. “And I’ve said in many places, rural Missouri wants to see small and fiscally conservative government. They want individual rights respected, including the Second Amendment. But then they want what everybody else wants in this state. Which is they want schools funded, they want roads fixed and they want health care to stop shutting its doors and leaving their communities. That is a group of principles that I feel comfortable around.

“And there is going to be debate and back and forth in the Democratic Party around that,” he added. “But that is where I am. And maybe for a different time would bring a different leader. But in this time, this is the path that I will walk.”

Koster's "big tent" comment is a reference to how some Missouri Democrats (such as Kansas City Mayor Sly James) heaped a lot of criticism on the NRA — and made full-throated calls for more restrictions on firearms. Koster says Missouri Democrats can have different perspectives on the issue.

“There used to be a lot of people who protected the Second Amendment in this party the way I do now. Now, not so many,” Koster said earlier this week. “But you know, I am where I am. I come up through rural law enforcement. I came up through a more conservative place than perhaps Sly did. But there’s room in this party for this kind of disagreement.”

On the Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads from the world of Missouri politics.

Follow Jason Rosenbaum on Twitter: @jrosenbaum