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Ex-Republican tackles question facing many Democrats: What's the matter with Missouri?

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 5, 2012 - CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster, a Republican turned Democrat, admits that “it takes a special kind of crazy to leave a majority party to come to a minority party.”

Koster, widely expected to run for governor in 2016, told Missouri Democratic delegates Wednesday that he doesn’t regret his decision, which he says came five years ago after he became “fed up” with the socially conservative takeover of the Republican Party.

“I left a party that literally had no braking mechanism on its right-hand extreme, and no way to stop irresponsible decision-making on the right,” Koster explained.

But he does see challenges confronting the Democratic Party that threaten its long-term existence – in Missouri and perhaps the nation.

“We cannot survive with a middle that is entirely (Republican) red,’’ Koster said, alternately igniting cheers and rapt silence from his audience.

Unless the state’s Democrats successfully tackle the GOP's takeover of rural Missouri, he said, the Democratic Party’s future is in doubt.

While Koster was talking about Missouri, most of his comments fit in with what political analysts say nationally – that Democrats can’t survive without attracting once again the working-class voters that used to be a key part of the Democratic base. Many of those voters have defected to the GOP.

In Missouri, the result is a General Assembly that is overwhelmingly Republican – largely because of an almost solid bloc of rural GOP legislators.

What happened?

“Is Missouri becoming more conservative or is Missouri expressing its native conservatism in different ways?” Koster asked, then provided his own answer. “I believe the answer is the latter.”

U.S. Rep. Russ Carnahan, D-St. Louis, made a similar point a few minutes earlier, as he exhorted all Democrats to help U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo. Carnahan pointed out that the last Missouri Democrat to win re-election to the U.S. Senate was Thomas F. Eagleton, D-St. Louis, when he won a third term in 1980.

That’s 32 years ago.

Carnahan lambasted the “SuperPACS funded by billionaires’’ that he predicted will re-emerge in Missouri in a few weeks to attack once again McCaskill, who’s in a tight contest with Republican Todd Akin, R-Wildwood, despite the national furor over Akin’s recent comments about “legitimate rape.”

But Koster contended that what ails Missouri Democrats – and politically has largely killed off their counterparts in neighboring Kansas – is not just financial.

“Candidate recruitment is absolutely critical,” he said, particularly in rural Missouri.

Koster cited a number of legendary Democratic state senators, including Jim Mathewson, Danny Staples and Harold Caskey, who represented rural districts that now all have Republican legislators.

Such prominent Democratic figures, he said, attracted the attention of aspiring rural politicians – including himself – who could see themselves joining the ranks of such eminent leaders.

Now said Koster, Democrats have few rural role models. To correct the problem, he asserted that Democrats need to attract stronger rural candidates and “we’ve got to make sure these people win, that the middle of the state turns blue again.”

That’s where the money and a stronger ground game come in.

By coincidence, Missouri’s Democratic delegates had first heard on Wednesday from Buffy Wicks, director of “National Operation Vote” for President Barack Obama’s re-election effort.

Wicks had headed up Obama’s 2008 ground operation in Missouri and had moved up to a national role this time because of her expertise developed in the Show-Me State – even though Missouri ended up narrowly going to Republican John McCain in 2008.

While she detailed this year’s voter registration and get-out-the-vote efforts in several key swing states, including North Carolina, several listeners noted that Wicks didn’t mention any efforts at all in Missouri.

GOP's anti-science reputation

Koster is seeking re-election this fall; his Republican opponent is St. Louis lawyer Ed Martin, a social conservative who has been hammering Koster for months as "Obama's lawyer."

Amid his somber message, Koster said there was no question that Missouri Democrats had fielded a stronger statewide team of candidates, who he said better reflected the “Big Tent” philosophy crucial for the state’s economic health.

Republicans, asserted Koster, are chasing jobs out of Missouri with their conservative opposition to science. 

He accused GOP candidates of too often expressing “the desire to take the finest scientists in the world who are being brought to Washington University in St. Louis and Stowers Institute in Kansas City, and tell them that they are now going to be considered criminals in the state of Missouri."

"They were going to criminalize stem cell research," Koster explained. "That was the beginning of the end for me.”

Despite the state’s narrow passage in 2006 of Amendment 2, which protects all forms of stem cell research allowed under federal law, Koster said Missouri is obtaining a national anti-science image that tells prospective scientists, “ ‘Come to Boston for your Nobel Prize, come to Missouri for your leg irons.’ “

Carnahan, in his earlier remarks, had quipped that he and Akin were both members of the U.S. House’s Science and Technology committee, but that Akin “probably thought it was the ‘Flat Earth Society.’ “

Koster said the Democrats’ embrace of technology, and an optimistic view of what the future can be, can attract young independent voters.

Still, Koster repeatedly emphasized that his prime political focus was on state issues – “where the rubber hits the road” – prompting the obvious question: Why was he at the Democratic presidential convention?

Koster answered by explaining that the chief attraction hadn’t been national figures or even his role as a delegate. He also emphasized that he wasn’t in Charlotte to schmooze with the national Democratic big-wigs and possible donors.

“What brings me here is not so much what’s going on in the convention hall,” he said. “What I’m here for, is to be with the people in this room,” Missouri’s 100-plus delegates.

As he told them at Wednesday’s breakfast: “You are the Democratic opinion leaders in this state. You are the people who are going to bring this party back to its historic point. You are the people who are going to bring this state success in the future.”

His blunt message, Koster said, was simply aimed at helping the Democratic Party regain its deserved status. “I am an incredibly happy Democrat,” he said. “I will live and die politically as a Democrat. And I want to make certain that Missouri regains its place in America as a battleground state.”

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.