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Koster-Greitens showdown in Missouri resembles Clinton-Trump faceoff

Republican gubernatorial candidate Eric Greitens (right) listened as Democrat Chris Koster spoke during their debate last week in Branson.
Republican gubernatorial candidate Eric Greitens (right) listened as Democrat Chris Koster spoke during their debate last week in Branson. The Associated Press

Missouri may not be the bellwether it once was, but it’s amazing how state politics here still mirrors what’s happening at the national level.

Take this year’s governor’s race between Democrat Chris Koster and Republican Eric Greitens.

We’ve got a candidate who, like Donald Trump, is a newcomer to politics, had to survive a horror show of a primary, refuses to release his tax returns and has struggled to consolidate his own party behind him (Greitens).

And we’ve got a candidate who, like Hillary Clinton, touts his political experience, maintains a big edge in ready cash and has remained the race’s frontrunner from day one (Koster).

Issues? They’ve been tossed aside in both races.

In both, the Democrats loom large in terms of their chances. The live betting odds on the RealClear Politics site Thursday had Clinton’s chances at an even 75 percent. That feels about right for Koster as well based on a poll late last month from Remington Research, a Republican outfit. That survey had Koster ahead by 16 points, 51-35 percent.

Leading insiders from both parties question whether Koster really leads by that much in right-leaning Missouri. But based on last week’s first — and perhaps only — debate between the two in Branson, it’s clear that Greitens himself believes he’s playing from behind.

His over-the-top, relentless attacks on Koster as a “corrupt career politician” smacked of desperation. Koster’s retort:

“I have little doubt that he knows how to blow up government,” he said referring to Greiten’s ads that show him shooting a machine gun. “I have a lot of doubt as to whether he knows anything about putting it back together.”

For now, Koster’s campaign has suspended negotiations over further debates in a bid to force Greitens to release his taxes. One other motive: Koster may see little upside in further faceoffs.

But Greitens might have some fight left. GOP sources say the Republican Governors Association still views Missouri as a pickup opportunity. GOP sources expect the Republican Governors Association to more than double its $4.25 million investment in the final weeks.

That’s serious money. And it means an avalanche of negative Koster ads are streaming toward your TV sets.

One number to watch is how big a lead Trump amasses in Missouri. If it reaches 10 points or more, Democrats up and down the ballot will be imperiled.

Still, the ugly truth is Greitens never regained his footing after his decisive win in that tough, four-way August primary. Koster had him on the ground almost immediately by winning the backing of the Missouri Farm Bureau and the NRA, groups that traditionally go right.

All this suggests that Show-Me Republicans have got to get this primary thing figured out. Democrats once were the unruly party with messy, costly intra-party fights. But they’ve managed to largely eliminate them. A tough primary ended any shot the GOP had in 2008, which was the last time a Missouri governor’s race featured no incumbent.

The GOP scrum in the 2012 U.S. Senate race produced a nominee named Todd Akin who became a national laughingstock a few days later with his line about “legitimate rape.”

Now another primary is threatening to undo Republicans once again.

Steve Kraske: 816-234-4312, @stevekraske