Missouri Breaks

by John B. Judis | December 5, 2007

INDEPENDENCE, MISSOURI

“As much as we would all like to believe the General Assembly is a ‘Mr. Smith’ kind of entity, the reality is that these institutions are far more like a tug of war,” says State Senator Chris Koster, as we sit over coffee at the Courtyard Exchange. “If you are going to go down there, you have to get on one side of the rope or the other, and I realized I was on the wrong side of the rope.”

Koster was elected a state senator in 2004 as part of a swing to the Republican Party in Missouri. The Show-Me State, once considered the archetypal swing state, seemed to be going Republican, with the GOP taking the governorship and both houses of the General Assembly. Koster quickly rose to become the chairman of the Republican caucus and the vice-chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, and was widely thought to be the Republican choice to succeed Democrat Jay Nixon as attorney general in 2008. But on August 1 this year, Koster suddenly announced that he was switching from the Republican to the Democratic Party; he is now trying to win the Democratic nomination for attorney general.

Koster’s defection comes on the heels of party switches last year by prominent Republicans in neighboring Kansas. Like Kansas Attorney General and former Republican Paul Morrison, Koster is a self-identified moderate who found himself at odds with what he calls the “religious extremism” in the Republican party. His defection is further evidence that in the Midwest, Democrats, once seen as left-wing extremists, are beginning to capture the coveted center. They are the party to whom “moderates” have begun to gravitate.

Koster, 43, is a red-haired and lanky former prosecutor with a deep baritone and a commanding presence. He's not the kind of person one would want to face in a courtroom, though he is still learning the skills of talking to political reporters. He repeatedly prefaces his sentences with the telling adverb “candidly,” as if to suggest that he is about to reveal dark secrets.

After graduating from the University of Missouri and its law school, Chris Koster landed a job in the office of Republican state attorney general Bill Webster. “Candidly, that is how I ended up a Republican,” he says. While in Jefferson City, Koster became friendly with lawyer and later judge Barbara Crancer, the sister of Teamster President Jim Hoffa. In 1994, when Koster ran for public prosecutor in Cass County, he won partly on the strength of an endorsement from the Teamsters Union’s powerful Local 41. Koster was a very successful prosecutor--working with Paul Morrison, who was then a prosecutor in Kansas’s neighboring Johnson County, to convict serial killer John E. Robinson.

When the Democratic State Senator retired in 2004, Koster ran for the seat, winning on the strength of his record as public prosecutor and the support of organized labor. In Cass County, which had been Democratic since the Civil War, he became the first Republican to hold that office in over fifty years.

But Koster was by no means the kind of conservative Republican that has reigned in Washington since 1994. Instead, he was the kind of Republican once very common in the Midwest: pro-business, but also friendly to labor; nominally conservative, but not pious or punitive on social issues. Think, for instance, of retiring Ohio congressman Ralph Regula or former Illinois Governor James Thompson or current Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter.

While backing Republican tax and spending proposals, Koster broke with colleagues who opposed increases in the minimum wage and were seeking to repeal the legislation that provided prevailing wage agreements. Koster, who, with the state senate only a part-time gig, took a job with a Kansas City law firm specializing in personal injury suits, also opposed Republican efforts to reduce awards for workers’ compensation and to protect insurance companies from lawsuits. But his disagreement over these issues wasn’t what finally convinced Koster to switch parties. It was the debate over stem cell research that consumed Missouri Republicans after the 2004 election.

With the Republicans in charge of the governor’s mansion and of both houses of the General Assembly in the wake of the ’04 election, Senate Republicans, prodded by Missouri Right To Life, introduced a bill that would have made it a felony to engage in basic kinds of stem-cell research. Koster, by his own admission, was “very close to the issue.” His father, who died at age 58, had suffered from diabetes, one of the diseases for which stem cell research may develop a treatment, and had lost his eyesight in his last years. Even today, Koster chokes up when talking of his father’s early death. Koster was also worried about the growing reluctance of the multi-billion dollar Kansas City-based Stowers Institute to invest in medical research in the state because of the hostility toward stem cell research.

Koster, breaking with many of his fellow Republicans, led the opposition to the anti-stem cell bill, and with Democratic support, was able to kill it. Then in the 2006 election, Koster was the only Republican State Senator to back Amendment Two, which allowed any kind of stem cell research in Missouri that was legal under federal law. But the controversy didn’t end with the passage of Amendment Two. This year, Koster has fought attempts by his fellow Republicans to put an amendment on the ballot in 2008 that would repeal it. “In 2007,” Koster said in his August 1 statement, “the issue of stem cell research has clearly divided along partisan lines. The Republican Party is against embryonic stem cell research. The Democratic Party is in favor of the research. I choose to fight alongside those with whom I agree.”

Koster had initially planned to run for attorney general as a Republican, but he recognized that he would face the determined opposition of Missouri Right-to-Life, perhaps the most powerful interest group in the Missouri Republican Party. Political advisers told him that if he wanted to win the Republican nomination, he would have to stop talking about stem cell research. That was clearly a factor in his decision to switch parties. He was inspired, too, by the example of Morrison, in Kansas, who had switched parties to run for attorney general. “Candidly, you know the fact that Paul jumped first and that he and I were the same kind of centrist politicians, gave me a comfort level.”

But there is a difference between Morrison and Koster. As I found when I interviewed him in Topeka, Morrison is above all a lawman. He doesn’t like to discuss anything that impinges on political ideology. But Koster is much more of a politician, and in the months after he has made the switch, Koster--no longer constrained by his desire to rise within Republican ranks--has become a full-fledged Democrat. He talks about being “progressive” rather than “conservative.” Koster, following the lead of many scientists, reserves judgment on whether the new method of creating stem cells from skin cells will work on human cells, but he acknowledges that by the fall of 2008, stem cell research may no longer be an issue in Missouri. He touts his support for worker rights and the minimum wage and for an independent judiciary--against a proposal by the state’s Republicans to replace the non-partisan method of choosing judges. He has won the endorsement of the Teamsters and the Building Trades and is receiving financial support from the state’s trial lawyers, who see him as one of their own.

Much of the changes in Koster’s views are subtle, demonstrating how in the face of the Republican shift to the far right, moderate Republicans can easily become moderate Democrats. When he ran for state senate in 2004, Koster, who is Catholic, described himself as “pro-life.” But in explaining what that means, he told the Kansas City Star that he “would limit abortion to the boundaries set forth by the U.S. Supreme Court.” When he arrived in Jefferson City, he says, he discovered that “the term ‘pro-life’ means something different inside the Capitol than outside. There are a lot of Catholics who would say they are pro-life, but if they were asked whether they would criminalize abortion, they would say they wouldn’t go that far. In the assembly, [pro-life] means you would criminalize.” Accordingly, Koster the Democrat now describes himself as “pro-choice,” but his views on abortion have not changed. He supports Roe v. Wade, but would also support “some common sense restrictions,” including parental consent.

Koster could very well lose the Democratic nomination. Missouri is not Kansas, where Morrison, after he switched parties, had an easy path to the nomination. Missouri has always had a competitive Democratic party. Koster has two serious challengers who, among other things, are trying to brand him as an opportunist and to tie his views to those of a wealthy Republican who has contributed to his campaign. That might work in the Democratic primary, even though Koster would make a formidable general election candidate. But regardless of the outcome, Koster’s defection is a blow to a Republican party in Missouri that had once counted him among its leading lights--and another nail in the coffin of Karl Rove's long-term dreams of a Republican realignment in America's heartland.

John B. Judis is a senior editor at The New Republic and a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

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