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Kinder, Lager each claim to be the real conservative in GOP lt. governor primary

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 16, 2012 - In this year’s primary election cycle, one of the most high-profile contests may be for an office that doesn’t often get much attention.

The race for lieutenant governor is proving to be a spirited affair for both Republicans and Democrats, even though the office has few formal powers and hasn’t always been a springboard to electoral advancement. The lieutenant governor has only a few required duties: taking over if the governor leaves office, presiding over the Missouri Senate and serving on select boards and commissions.

Still, candidates on the Republican side have amassed hefty campaign chests to  mount expensive television campaigns across the state. One candidate – state Sen. Brad Lager, R-Savannah – raised huge amounts of money in a week from just a handful of high-profile donors: $917,500 from June 23 to June 30.

Meanwhile, Democrats have to choose among a group of eight candidates, including a former statewide official, several former and current state lawmakers and a member of the St. Louis school board.

While the Democratic contest has generally been low key and low cost, the Republican contest took a negative turn earlier this summer. Incumbent Peter Kinder faced attacks over his spending at hotels, while Lager has had to fight against charges he’s not conservative enough. And both GOP candidates are trying to outdo each other in opposing the federal health-care law.

The Republican contest may foreshadow the challenge for the eventual Democratic nominee. Lager, for instance, has proved he can raise a towering sum rapidly, while Kinder is a known commodity with experience running statewide. But Democrats believe their message for the office could attract attention.

If anything, the outsized interest in the contest could show how term limits – and ambition – have hastened quests for advancement in Missouri politics. Or so says Missouri State University political science professor George Connor.

“Politics has changed,” Connor said. “There’s kind of a new breed of candidate out there that doesn’t feel like they have to wait their turn. They just come in and say, ‘Why should I wait my turn; I’m the best candidate.’”

Prelude to a brawl

Just a year ago, the lieutenant governor's race looked like a yawner. House Speaker Steve Tilley, R-Perryville, looked to be the heir apparent while Kinder seemed poised to run for governor.

But everything changed. After a divorce, Tilley abandoned his lieutenant governor run, citing a need to be with his family. And after negative headlines about his traveling expenses and his relationship with a former stripper, Kinder chose to run for re-election.

Yet Kinder’s quest for a third term had a major complication. After Tilley dropped out, Lager announced, and the two-term senator – who narrowly lost a bid for state treasurer in 2008 – refused to budge when Kinder decided to run for re-election.>

In a telephone interview, Lager conceded that running against an incumbent statewide officeholder isn’t easy.

“Any time you run against an incumbent, it’s tough,” Lager said. “And when you’re running against an incumbent that controls the party and the party’s working against you, it makes it that much more difficult. So it’s been uphill the whole way. But the thing that has been consistent the whole way through is this feeling from every one that I meet that it’s time for new blood.”

In a separate telephone interview, Kinder said that his list of accomplishments –  a prescription drug program that help seniors, the Tour of Missouri and experience as acting chief executive during Gov. Matt Blunt’s administration – make him well-qualified for re-election. He also pointed to his campaigning for other Republicans, which has helped conservative causes.

“I did more than 50 events for other Republican candidates in every corner of the state,” said Kinder, referring to his campaigning in 2010. “That led to the broadest, widest, deepest year in the state’s history, leaving us with historic majorities in Jefferson City. My record recognizes that I’m a team player, one who recognizes that this is a team sport and fights for the team and do what I can to advance the cause.”

Kinder’s campaign received endorsements from dozens of state House members, including Tilley and House Majority Leader Tim Jones, R-Eureka. He also has support from Eagle Forum founder Phyllis Schlafly, and conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh. Limbaugh – a Cape Girardeau native – is featured in a radio ad supporting Kinder’s campaign.

“So if someone wants to say that my conservative bonafides are in question, that won’t pass the laugh test,” Kinder said. “The great American conservative icons from Missouri are both backing Peter Kinder.”

Follow the money

Yet Lager’s campaign has gathered financial momentum, thanks to substantial donations from a small circle of contributors. They include some prominent donors who gave to Kinder previously, such as retired financer Rex Sinquefield, TAMKO CEO and President David Humphreys. 

“I am actually honored that entrepreneurs – people who have built successful companies and big companies – are supporting me,” said Lager, noting that part of it comes with personal friendships with some donors. “But they understand that the type of principles that I represent and that I support in government is what has allowed them to build their companies.”

But even though Lager is outflanking Kinder in fundraising, Kinder still has enough money to run counterattacking television commercials. And he notes he hasn’t been critical of his former donors for supporting Lager.

“Obviously, I’d prefer that they be supporting me. But they made their choice and I have at no point been critical of it,” Kinder said. “Of course it’s a disadvantage in the fundraising. Yeah. When they give to your opponent and they don’t to you, yeah. But I have 2,000-plus donors in this cycle.”

Kinder said he’s used to being underestimated. In 2004, for example, he narrowly defeated former Secretary of State Bekki Cook in his first statewide race. Four years later, he defeated state Rep. Sam Page, a Creve Coeur Democrat with a strong fundraising base.

“I have some experience with this from coming from behind, from fighting as an underdog,” Kinder said. “And it’s a comfortable position for me. I’m out here scrapping.”

Ad war

The two candidates do have some policy differences. Kinder, for instance, has supported historic preservation tax credits, which have been used to rehab old buildings. Lager has been a consistent critic of such incentives and has tried to curtail them.

The federal health-care law has become a big issue in the contest. Kinder – who filed a high-profile lawsuit in 2010 to try and upend the law – recently went on a statewide tour promoting a lawsuit to overturn ballot language for a proposal barring the governor from setting up a health insurance exchange. He’s also came out against expanding Medicaid to cover those with incomes up to 133 percent of the federal poverty level.

“I’m in favor of saying no, as other governors are saying no,” said Kinder, referring to chief executives such as Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and Texas Gov. Rick Perry, both Republicans opposed to expanding Medicaid. “And by the way, as the governor of Missouri may be saying. Has he been heard to stand up and say, ‘Yes, we should go for this Obamacare Medicaid expansion?’ The answer is no.”

For his part, Lager proposed calling a special session to opt out of expanding Medicaid. Both Kinder and Tilley have dismissed the idea, state Sen. Bill Stouffer, R-Napton and Republican gubernatorial aspirant Bill Randles are supportive.

Both Kinder and Lager say they are well-positioned on the issue against any of their potential Democratic opponents. 

"They really believe that big government programs and Big Brother are the right thing to do," Lager said.

Added Kinder: "I think I'll be in a good position because my views are in line with Missourians."

Two other candidates – Wentzville attorney Michael Carter and St. Louis resident St. Louis resident Charles Kullmann – are seeking the Republican nomination. Carter – who previously ran for the office as a Democrat in 2008 – gained some attention for launching a wave of robo-calls to promote his candidacy. One of Carter’s signature issues is curtailing the use of red light cameras throughout the state.

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.