Chris Koster has spent the weeks since winning the Missouri Democratic nomination for governor racking up support from traditionally Republican groups.
The Missouri Farm Bureau made Koster the first Democrat to ever win its endorsement, which was quickly followed by a trio of rural Missouri farm groups and the Fraternal Order of Police. He’s also widely believed to be the frontrunner for the NRA’s endorsement.
“There are moderate Republicans out there who the one issue they have with Chris Koster is that he has a ‘D’ next to his name,” said Jack Cardetti, a veteran Democratic strategist in Missouri. “But when they see the Farm Bureau endorse Koster, it gives them permission to vote for him.”
Former Navy SEAL Eric Greitens, the Republican nominee, downplays the importance of these endorsements. He’s betting on his outsider status to carry the day, as it did when he emerged from a bruising four-way GOP primary despite the state’s largest anti-abortion group not only refusing to endorse him but actively campaigning against him.
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Greitens’ campaign didn’t respond to a request for comment, but his campaign manager previously said the 2016 election has demonstrated that “endorsements don’t move voters like they used to.”
In a race that matches Koster, who until 2007 was a Republican, and Greitens, who briefly flirted with a run for Congress as a Democrat in 2010, many observers are left wondering if the rules that have long governed Missouri politics still apply.
“It is a unique general election,” said Ryan Johnson, president of the conservative nonprofit Missouri Alliance for Freedom. “Unlike any I have seen.”
Terry Smith, professor of political science at Columbia College, said endorsements matter most when they come from “unexpected quarters.” That’s where Koster seems to have the advantage, Smith said.
“Other things being equal, voters can be persuaded by the views of a trusted source, of which an affinity group like Farm Bureau is a good example,” he said.
Cardetti, who helped run Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon’s double-digit campaign wins in 2008 and 2012, said the support Koster is getting from traditionally Republican groups is unprecedented and demonstrates a lack of enthusiasm for the Republican candidate among his party’s loyal constituencies.
“Endorsements help you build your coalition,” he said. “You have to build a working coalition to raise money, contact voters and get out the vote.”
Without a coalition of groups willing to help turn out the vote, Cardetti said, “(Greitens’) supporters and swing voters are going to abandon him in droves.”
Johnson admits he was highly critical of Greitens in the run-up to the GOP primary. But despite the differences he’s had with the Republican standard-bearer, the reality is “he has promised to sign many if not all of conservatives’ legislative priorities.”
That should motivate wary conservative voters to support him, Johnson said, despite any misgivings.
“A Greitens win means Missouri becomes a right-to-work state in 2017,” Johnson said.
That fact, and Koster’s vehement opposition to right-to-work legislation, won over at least one prominent Republican-leaning group. The Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry endorsed Greitens on Friday.
“With Eric Greitens as governor, Missouri would be poised for rapid progress on several long-needed, pro-expansion policy priorities,” Dan Mehan, the Missouri Chamber’s president and CEO, said in a statement.
While endorsements traditionally matter, Johnson said, “we have just witnessed a Republican gubernatorial primary in which the victor proved they did not.”
And so Greitens sets out to unify his party after an expensive, and at times ugly, primary fight.
Meanwhile Koster has managed to avoid inter-party turmoil, despite the fact that he disagrees with his party’s base on a number of high-profile issues — most notably on gun control. As Democratic lawmakers gear up to try to sustain Nixon’s veto of a bill doing away with permit and training requirements to carry a concealed gun, Koster has said he’d have signed the bill.
So how did Koster get his party to rally around him while focusing on courting Republican voters?
Democrats fear the GOP-dominated legislature, Cardetti said.
“Republican legislative super majorities in Jefferson City and a Republican governor, and what that would mean for progressive priorities, have really sharpened Democrats’ perspective,” he said. “Their priorities would go down the drain if Republicans control both those branches of government.”