Government & Politics

Chris Koster’s path to November election seems clear, but some wonder if he’s in right primary

Attorney General Chris Koster is the presumptive Democratic nominee for Missouri governor.
Attorney General Chris Koster is the presumptive Democratic nominee for Missouri governor. File photo

Missouri Democrats face an uphill fight to sustain Gov. Jay Nixon’s veto of a bill eliminating training requirements to carry a concealed firearm.

Same goes for another bill Nixon vetoed that would require voters to provide a government-issued photo ID before being allowed to cast a ballot.

Complicating their efforts is the fact that their all-but-certain nominee for governor supports both bills.

Attorney General Chris Koster, who faces only token opposition in the Aug. 2 Democratic primary to replace term-limited Nixon, said he saw no reason to veto the wide-ranging gun bill.

And while he says he opposes voter ID legislation in principle, he called this year’s version a good compromise between Democrats and Republicans that protects “the integrity of the right to vote without placing excessive regulations on the voting process.”

To have a party’s standard bearer on the opposite side of his base on two of the year’s most high-profile partisan fights is unusual in and of itself.

Even more so is the fact that Koster — who joined the Democratic Party only nine years ago — managed to avoid a real primary fight the same year his party’s presidential nominee was forced to stave off a vigorous challenge from her left.

But in the long term, Koster’s nomination means Missouri politics looks to be taking a conservative turn on a host of issues, regardless of which party replaces Nixon.

“It’s important for a lot of people that the office remain in the hands of a Democrat,” said Alison Dreith, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Missouri. “But we’re a nonpartisan organization, and I have real concerns whether he’ll be even more conservative than Jay Nixon.”

For his part, Koster says he’s heard this type of criticism before.

“When I was a member of the Republican Party, they felt the same way about me,” he said in an interview with The Star.

Koster served 10 years as Cass County prosecutor before being elected to the Missouri Senate as a Republican in 2004. He was eventually chosen by his Republican colleagues to be their caucus chairman.

His career in Republican politics came to an end in 2007. With aspirations to run for attorney general the next year, and armed with a laundry list of policy disagreements with the GOP, Koster publicly split with the party and declared that “Republican moderates are all but extinct.”

Republicans panned his move as political opportunism, a realization he couldn’t survive a GOP primary and instead had to switch teams to advance his political career. Koster says it was far more fundamental than that.

“The problem with the Republican Party is that you can only reach for a narrow band of solutions,” Koster said. “There’s a certain narrow tool box of solutions party dogma requires, and if you reach outside of those you are stigmatized.”

A year after he switched parties, he was elected attorney general as a Democrat. He cruised to re-election four years later.

Today, Koster stands little chance of losing the Democratic gubernatorial nomination.

None of the three men who filed to run against him has raised any money, while Koster has $10 million in his campaign war chest. Only one has any electoral experience whatsoever — former Kansas City Mayor Charles Wheeler, who at 89 is not mounting much of a campaign.

Early on, it didn’t look like Koster was going to be so lucky.

A pair of Democrats — former Lt. Gov. Joe Maxwell and former state Sen. Joan Bray — questioned Koster’s Democratic bona fides back in 2014 , and Maxwell even floated the possibility of a primary challenge.

Both Missouri Treasurer Clint Zweifel and U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill openly flirted with running before bowing out.

That leaves Koster sitting virtually unchallenged for his party’s nomination. Some Democrats are quietly grumbling about their lack of choice in the primary. But most have jumped on board, if for no other reason than because of the prospect of a Republican governor next year.

“I trust that a Gov. Koster would be more inclined to listen to us and our perspective than any of the Republicans who are all trying to out-extreme each other,” said Laura Swinford, executive director of liberal advocacy group Progress Missouri.

To be sure, there are many issues where Koster has earned hosannas from the party faithful.

He supports expansion of Medicaid as envisioned under the federal Affordable Care Act, an increase in the minimum wage and an expansion of discrimination protections to include sexual orientation and gender identity.

But it’s on labor issues where Koster’s support truly shows.

Republicans are in no danger of losing their legislative majorities this fall in either the House or Senate. The four Republicans running for governor each said they’d sign a “right to work” law, which would outlaw any contract that requires workers to pay dues or fees to a union as a condition of employment.

The only thing preventing the legislation from becoming law in Missouri is the governor’s veto pen. Koster’s vehement opposition to to the idea helps explain why he has received overwhelming support from organized labor unions — including millions of dollars in campaign contributions.

“Collective bargaining is what created 75 years of middle-class wages in this country,” Koster said. “I can’t see why undoing collective bargaining is a wise use of governmental policy.”

But while he stands with Democrats on several key issues, fissures remain.

When Koster ran for Missouri Senate in 2004, he described himself as “pro-life.” He said he now considers himself “pro-choice,” adding that “your ideas evolve as you get older.”

Dreith said NARAL Pro-Choice Missouri hasn’t endorsed anyone in the governor’s race.

Nixon vetoed a bill last year that would ban students who were brought to the country illegally by their parents from receiving state-funded scholarships. When he was a state senator, Koster sponsored legislation barring undocumented immigrants from enrolling in state colleges and universities.

Koster has also voiced support for a 2014 tax-cut bill enacted by legislative Republicans over Nixon’s veto.

On gun regulations, while Democrats in St. Louis and Kansas City have fought a largely unsuccessful battle with the rural-dominated General Assembly over gun regulations, Koster was endorsed by the National Rifle Association during his 2012 attorney general campaign.

“Missouri is a red state, and I want to see a Democratic governor,” said state Rep. Stacey Newman, a St. Louis County Democrat. “But even someone running more as a moderate needs to support us in the urban areas while we are dealing with the impact of gun violence on a daily basis.”

For two decades, Missourians have “voted into office with consistency and increasing intensity the most gun-friendly legislature in the United States,” Koster said. “The people of this state are speaking pretty clearly on this issue.”

Instead of restricting access to guns, Koster said the issue of gun violence in the urban core should be addressed through increased law enforcement and increased spending for mental health care.

And he believes his position puts him in line with most of Missouri.

“When Republican farmers try to decide whether they can support me, the first question they want to know is, ‘Are you fiscally conservative?’ ” Koster said. “The second question is, ‘Will you protect our Second Amendment rights?’ 

After that, Koster said, the questions turn to “ ‘are you going to fund our schools, are you going to fund our roads, are you going to ensure a rural hospital isn’t forced to close their doors every six months?’ There’s essentially a conservative Rorschach test they want to know, but as soon as you get past that, the subjects all get back to Democratic stronghold issues.”

Democrats have gone from massive legislative majorities to tiny legislative minorities in the last 20 years. Koster believes the cause is clear.

“A large part of the reason that occurred,” he said, “is (Democrats) had more and more trouble getting past those first two issues.”

Jason Hancock: 573-634-3565, @J_Hancock