Government & Politics

Independent candidate could affect the race for Missouri governor

Lester Turilli Jr. is an independent candidate for Missouri governor.
Lester Turilli Jr. is an independent candidate for Missouri governor.

Lester Turilli Jr. knows his chances of being the next governor of Missouri are slim.

Even that could be an understatement.

But with the race between Republican Eric Greitens and Democrat Chris Koster appearing to tighten in recent weeks, Turilli’s campaign could have an impact on who ultimately will be governor next year.

The candidacy of the 47-year-old from Stanton, whose family has owned and operated Meramec Caverns for 83 years, appeals to the Christian conservative wing of the Republican Party — a group Greitens has struggled to win over.

If the Greitens-Koster race comes down to the wire on election night, could Turilli peel off enough Republican voters to tip the race to the Democrat?

“I think he’s poised to be a spoiler,” said Gregg Keller, a veteran GOP political consultant and frequent Greitens critic who worked for another Republican campaign during the gubernatorial primary. “I don’t know if there’s a lot of evidence he’s resonating yet. But I’ll concede, if it does happen, it’ll happen late.”

The latest polling has Koster up by 3 percentage points. Dave Robertson, chairman of the department of political science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, said he could easily see Turilli getting 1 or 2 percent of the vote on Election Day.

“In a close election, that makes a huge difference,” Robertson said.

Like most things in Missouri politics, money gives Turilli’s campaign some credibility.

Unlike the candidates from the Green Party and Libertarian Party who also will appear on the ballot, he has some money in the bank. According to the last quarterly disclosure report he filed in July, Turilli has raised more than $120,000, although he had only $700 cash on hand at the time.

He says he’s planning to spend $20,000 on TV ads in Kansas City and St. Louis to go along with more than three dozen large highway billboards across the state.

“I know that I’m a long shot,” he said. “I understand it’s hard for independents to break through, but we’re going to keep on going.”

Turilli doesn’t see himself as a spoiler.

“I get that a lot,” he said. “If the Republican is having trouble reaching certain folks, that’s not my fault. It’s his.”

While his faith is central to his candidacy — “My heart’s desire,” he said, “is to serve God and serve the people of Missouri” — he believes he can also appeal to Democrats. He’s been an executive in the family business for 25 years and has a degree in management and entrepreneurship.

Not everyone is convinced Turilli’s candidacy will have much of an impact.

“Koster remains well ahead,” said Terry Smith, professor of political science at Columbia College, “and barring a major scandal he should win, maybe comfortably.”

Ryan Johnson, president of the conservative nonprofit Missouri Alliance for Freedom, thinks the race is getting tight between Greitens and Koster. Ultimately, he said, conservatives will look at the differences between the two candidates and cast their vote for the Republican.

“As a conservative who cares about policy, you have to sit down and analyze where the candidates are on the issues you care about,” Johnson said. “Eric will sign right to work, tort reform, education reform, deregulation and so many other things.”

Greitens also appears to be working to mend fences with some of the groups that opposed him during the primary.

He filled out the candidate questionnaire for the state’s largest anti-abortion group, Missouri Right to Life, after months of refusing. And he recently told The Associated Press that even though he opposed a so-called religious freedom amendment during the 2016 legislative session, he would work to strike a compromise on the issue if elected governor.

“Lester Turilli is, I’m sure, an outstanding individual,” Johnson said. “If you care about conservative policy solutions, you should vote for Eric Greitens.”

For his part, Turilli said he believes he can defy the odds and pull off an upset.

“I’m just praying for a miracle,” he said. “If this is what’s supposed to happen, it’ll happen.”

Jason Hancock: 573-634-3565, @J_Hancock