On the trail: After chilly start, Democrats embrace Koster as Nixon's Democratic successor | St. Louis Public Radio

On the trail: After chilly start, Democrats embrace Koster as Nixon's Democratic successor

Apr 15, 2013

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: When Chris Koster first ran for attorney general in 2008, the phrase "Koster the Imposter" was thrown around as commonly as promises to be tough on crime.

That's because Koster had made the unusual move of switching political parties. Some Missouri Democrats contended that Koster was an opportunist who didn't believe in the party's beliefs or principles. Consequently, Koster barely won a heated Democratic primary over state Reps. Margaret Donnelly and Jeff Harris, a contest in which his political convictions and Democratic credentials were constantly under attack.

Now that campaign seems a distant memory. Shortly after state Treasurer Clint Zweifel announced he wouldn’t seek the governorship in 2016, Koster told members of the capital press corps that he was “making the necessary preparations and building consensus around the state toward that end." (Through a spokeswoman, Koster declined to be interviewed for this article.)

This time, most of the party seems to have decided to rally behind Koster as the consensus Democratic candidate in an open race for governor.

So how did Koster accomplish this transition? Several Democrats interviewed by the Beacon point to his fundraising and organizational prowess, outreach to fellow Democrats and electability.

“Democrats will look at the job you’ve in office, and they like and respect the job that Chris Koster has done,” said Jack Cardetti, a Democratic strategist who served as spokesman for the Missouri Democratic Party during the 2008 campaign. “And it’s evident. The fact that we’re essentially sitting here three and a half years before the governor’s race and he has essentially cleared the field is a testament that he’s done a good job in office and he’s a really quality candidate that has a good grip on this race.

“The position Koster finds himself today is a byproduct of the hard work he’s put in,” he added.

From novelty to standard-bearer

The story of how Koster -- a former Cass County prosecutor and state senator -- departed from the Republican Party is part of the state's political lore, one of the few times in the state's history that somebody switched parties and ran successfully for statewide office. But one subplot that's often forgotten is that some Democrats viewed his arrival to the party with immense skepticism.

Both Donnelly and Harris staked their campaigns on questioning Koster's Democratic credentials. And many interest groups and elected officials sided with them, not Koster.

Those who backed Koster frequently felt the heat: Former state Sen. Jeff Smith, D-St. Louis, was one of three Democratic members of the Missouri Senate to embrace Koster's candidacy. With the exception of his position on professional licensing for midwives, Smith said backing Koster prompted more constituent e-mails than any other decision during his time in Missouri politics.

Many Democrats, Smith said, asked "why are you supporting this guy?"

Smith recalled that "they said (Koster) hadn’t paid his dues to Democrats. 'This is his first day in the Democratic Party and you’re supporting him over two lifelong Democrats who’ve been in the trenches and helped other Democratic candidates? Why should he be allowed to butt in line?’”

“That was probably the most frequent thing I heard from my own supporters, particularly since many of my supporters were from the more progressive, activist wing of the party. It was not a popular decision.”

Smith said people “were not pleased with votes (Koster) had taken in the Senate.” After all, Koster had been the chairman of the Senate’s Republican caucus. That meant he had voted on issues – such as Medicaid and student loans – that Democrats had railed against for years.

But even before he left the GOP, Koster possessed some Democratic proclivities. He made a splash in his first year in the Missouri Senate when he passionately defended embryonic stem cell research. And he often voted in line with organized labor and trial attorneys, two important Democratic constituencies.

Fundraising also likely helped Koster's case. With the exception of Nixon, no other Democratic official scooped up more five- and six-figure donations in the last election cycle. In 2013 alone, Koster raised about $285,000 in donation of more than $5,000. By comparison, Zweifel nabbed zero within those parameters.

From a practical point of view, Zweifel's departure provides Koster – an already prolific fundraiser – a chance to scoop up money for the expensive gubernatorial contest unencumbered by a serious challenger in his own party. 

With "what we’ve seen go on in states like Ohio and Wisconsin and Michigan, I think labor in particular knew it was important that they get behind one candidate for governor," said Cardetti, whose firm -- Tightline Strategies -- worked for Nixon in the past. "Because Democratic leadership in swing states like Missouri does matter.”

And even Democrats who once worked against Koster have kind words, especially about how he has helped other Democratic candidates over the last few years.

Richard Martin – a Kansas City Democratic strategist who worked on Donnelly’s campaign – praised Koster for willing to do the necessary work on the “grassroots” level. That includes connecting with the party’s base at ham breakfasts and fish frys across the state.

“The Democratic Party was justifiably suspicious at first whether his move was just political opportunism or whether he was genuinely leaving the Republican Party for our party. And you know, this is the Show Me State. So just like Republicans, you got to prove yourself to us,” Martin said. “He’s helped candidates all up and down the ticket. He’s at every event if you need him there. He’s just really shown that it wasn’t just about Chris Koster’s career. He genuinely was disenfranchised in the Missouri GOP. And he was comfortable in the Missouri Democratic Party and he’s shown that.”

Smith specifically pointed out how Koster gave $20,000 to the House Democratic Campaign Committee, a gesture he said that likely didn’t go unnoticed.

“He spent four years since the night he won that primary understanding that, yeah, maybe there was truth in the perception that he jumped ahead in line,” Smith said. “But he was going to devote the next four years trying to mitigate that perception – or at least work on behalf of other Democrats in a way that would ensure that perception slowly dissipated.”

Friction from the left?  

When he was interviewed by the Beacon last year for an overview of his re-election bid, Koster described his first term: “We’ve tried to operate this as a conservative, Democratic office and it has run smoothly.”

His Republican adversaries – who tied him to President Barack Obama’s administration at various points last year – may disagree with that assessment. But it’s hard to ignore the fact that Koster made moves against the grain of Democratic Party orthodoxy, even after he switched parties.

Koster, for instance, was the only Democratic statewide official who received an ‘A’ from the National Rifle Association, a group that probably isn't receiving a lot of love these days from fellow Democrats. His office also penned an amicus brief that argued the individual mandate of the Affordable Care Act was unconstitutional under the commerce clause. And he’s also on record opposing campaign donation limits, an issue on which Nixon has crusaded since the 1990s.

In addition to receiving funds from other traditionally Republican donors, Koster's campaign has taken hundreds of thousands of dollars in the last two election cycles from retired financer Rex Sinquefield. While many Democrats up and down the ballot have received Sinquefield’s contributions, some Democratic activists are adamantly critical of Sinquefield's positions on taxation and education.  

Asked whether Sinquefield’s donations would be a problem for Koster, Cardetti said, “I don’t think any one donor to a campaign is going to be a huge issue.” Smith said that Koster’s other more conservative stances are less jarring for the party, adding that Nixon is widely perceived to be a moderate-to-conservative Democrat.

“A lot of Democrats – even liberal Democrats – will say ‘it worked for Jay Nixon, we definitely want to make sure we have a Democrat,’” Smith said. “Because even though [they] may not have always agreed with Gov. Nixon, it was important to have a veto over some of the things that get easily get past the House and slide through the Senate. It’s nice to have that backstop.”

And more broadly, Martin noted, it’s not unusual for the party’s progressives to take issue with Democratic statewide candidates.

“Progressives are never 100 percent satisfied with most of our statewide Democratic candidates. I mean, Claire McCaskill, Jay Nixon, Bob Holden, Mel Carnahan – I’ve been around all of them,” Martin said. “And they’ve always been slightly more right-of-center than left-of-center – some more than others. So it’s hard to make progressives 100 percent satisfied. And I’m afraid if we did, we’d have a hard time winning statewide elections.”

In any case, Martin added that he would be “very surprised” if Koster “got a serious challenge in the Democratic primary.”

“He’s done a lot of the legwork already to shore up all of the important constituencies,” Martin said. “Not maybe all of them, but a lot of them – the majority of them. And he does have the intangibles. He looks like a guy that can succeed Gov. Nixon. And we like to win. We’ve enjoyed having a governor these last [few] years. And we’d like to continue that.”

Republicans focusing on 2014

Missouri Republican Party executive director Shane Schoeller -- who narrowly lost the 2012 race for secretary of state -- said his party is focused on 2014. That's when state Auditor Tom Schweich is up for re-election and the party could add seats to already historic majorities in the Missouri General Assembly.

"We’re focused on 2014. And after 2014, we’ll begin to look very clearly at 2016," Schoeller said. "But we’re trying to look at what happened in 2012 on how we can do better. How can we do a better job?"

The party’s new chairman – St. Louis native Ed Martin – ran unsuccessfully against Koster in 2012. And, as others have noted, Martin probably didn’t throw out his opposition research on Koster after the election ended.

"Ed Martin did run against Chris Koster last time. So certainly he has the greatest experience and knowledge about Chris Koster’s strengths and weaknesses – and how as a party we can take a look at that over the next three years," Schoeller said, adding that that's assuming Koster doesn’t get a primary.

While the Missouri GOP will gather as much ammunition against Koster as possible, it’s unclear who the party’s candidate for governor will be.

Former House Speaker Catherine Hanaway told the Beacon she is considering the office, while state Auditor Tom Schweich could be a candidate if he wins re-election next year.

Other possibilities include U.S. Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer, R-St. Elizabeth, Senate President Pro Tem Tom Dempsey, R-St. Charles, or Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder.

James Harris, a Republican consultant who's recently worked for Schweich and Kinder, said Koster was smart to "consolidate his base and avoid the primary, especially in a state that I think, by most independent reviews, has been moving or trending Republican." 

"I think the Democrats have been a little bit smarter than that than Republicans," said Harris, referring to avoiding primaries. "That’s probably why 17 out of the last 21 years, Democrats have controlled the Governor’s Mansion. I think it probably puts some impetus on Republicans to begin this conversation and trying to find a person to get organized."

Asked if the GOP would rally behind one consensus candidate, Schoeller said: "Any time you look at the race for the governor, if there’s an opportunity for there to be one candidate that the party can rally behind, I think everybody would be for that." 

But, he added, "I think it’s just too early to make that prediction."

No matter who the Republicans nominate, Richard Martin expects the 2016 race for governor to be very competitive – indicative of how Missouri is a “very difficult state.”

“They could nominate somebody who says or does things that ultimately disqualify them – like we saw in the U.S. Senate race. But at the get-go, at the outset, it’ll look a competitive, up-for-grabs gubernatorial seat,” Martin said. “But I do think we will have an advantage. And the fact that we [will have] the office for eight years and without a primary, Attorney General Koster will have a great opportunity to build up quite a war chest and do a lot of the legwork you need to do to be successful.”

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