To call Peter Kinder the godfather of the dominant Missouri Republican Party of 2016 might be stretching it.
But not by much.
Kinder, the state’s three-term lieutenant governor, is preparing to leave office next month after a consequential 24-year run in state politics that ranged from moments of historic triumph to personal heartache and embarrassment.
In 2001, he became the first Republican to lead the state Senate in more than a half-century. In 2011, his alleged ties to a former Penthouse Pet came to light and undercut his standing as the early frontrunner for the 2012 GOP gubernatorial nomination.
This year, he finished third in a four-way nomination race for governor after again ranking as frontrunner for much of 2015.
Let’s be clear, though. Kinder’s legacy arguably will be as long-lasting and significant as that of anyone who’s walked out of Jeff City in recent years. He helped form the dominant Republican Party of today. In 2017, Republicans will control five of six statewide offices and towering, veto-proof majorities in the House and Senate.
Donald Trump had a lot to do with that. But Trump’s coattails wouldn’t have mattered if Kinder hadn’t cultivated the conservative garden years earlier.
It wasn’t that way when Kinder took office in 1993 as a right-wing flamethrower from Cape Girardeau. Back then, Kinder battled Democrats who were almost as strong as Republicans are today. Kinder fought ’em on abortion, and he fought ’em on guns. In 1997, on the final day of the session, he helped defeat one of Democratic Gov. Mel Carnahan’s signature initiatives, a pooled health insurance program for children making coverage available at cut rates.
Kinder said he smelled another run at national health care and lashed out at Carnahan that day: “We’re being lied to about this at the very highest level.”
Said Carnahan, bitterly, “It’s a shame what they did to Kids’ Care.”
But Kinder was in the vanguard of a new, conservative Republican wave. A buddy of Rush Limbaugh’s from their boyhoods in Cape Girardeau, Kinder was persistent and unrelenting. He never seemed to go away.
Senate Republicans didn’t make much progress when it came to adding seats until 1998 when the tide began turning. Two years later, a bitter fight over partial-birth abortion fueled GOP passions, and the party left the 2000 election with a 16-15 state Senate plurality, with three seats open. An outright majority came just weeks later in a series of special elections, including an upset win in northeast Missouri.
Kinder’s contribution to those efforts included nonstop travel, intense fundraising and a call for TV ads to begin the day after Christmas in that northeast Missouri race. That caught Democrats by surprise.
The Senate majority the GOP claimed was its first in 53 years.
A House GOP majority followed not long afterward. And despite predictions that Democrats would soon bounce back, Kinder and his Republicans only grew their advantage.
“It was my dream from boyhood on to help build Republican majorities in our state and turn our state red,” Kinder told me.
Whether another Republican leader would have led to the same result, we’ll never know. “What we do know for sure is Peter Kinder came along at a historically significant time,” Missouri GOP chairman John Hancock said. “As he ascended, the party that he represented ascended behind him.”
As a statewide candidate, Kinder kept the GOP flag flying even in big Democratic years, such as 2008 and 2012, when Republicans in Missouri suffered devastating statewide defeats. But Kinder survived, in part, because he cultivated strong ties in the Democratic stronghold of St. Louis.
These days, when Kinder speaks to groups, he trots out maps of Missouri’s House and Senate in 1992 and again today. The early maps are speckled blue and red. The new maps are almost solid red. It’s an astonishing change — a result, Kinder says, of a lot of hard work and of Missouri finally moving past bitterness that dates all the way to the Civil War.
You can measure Peter Kinder by the fact that he never became governor, that he served three terms in a largely ceremonial, second-banana position. You can point to the controversies and a personal awkwardness that sometimes bewildered reporters, voters and fellow Republicans.
But there’s no getting around it. He did a lot to paint his state red, and flipping it back to blue may not happen for decades.