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On the Trail, an occasional column by St. Louis Public Radio political reporter Jason Rosenbaum, takes an analytical look at politics and policy across Missouri.

Campaign trail: Koster hits critical juncture in unconventional political road

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 24, 2012 - Chris Koster was the master of shock during the last election cycle, propelling himself into a tantalizing statewide office despite the jarring spectacle of his historic party switch.

Flashing forward four years, Koster’s re-election bid for attorney general feels rather familiar. His first television ad uses the accustomed argumentations, taglines and b-roll from 2008 that maneuvered him through a complicated primary and a challenging general election. Even his propensity to take big donations from traditionally GOP donors – such as Rex Sinquefield – isn’t terribly surprising, considering he took the retired financer’s contributions during the last election cycle.

But just because Koster’s re-election doesn’t contain 2008's uncharted novelty doesn’t make his battle with GOP nominee Ed Martin any less important. This election may be the best chance for Koster’s adversaries to slow his march to the governor’s mansion, which is where he is widely assumed to be turning toward if he wins re-election.

Perhaps that’s why a conservative nonprofit got involved in the contest, running an ad against Koster’s decision-making on the federal health care law. 

It could also be why national figures – including U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Texas Gov. Rick Perry – are stumping for Martin, a St. Louis attorney who has also been put in charge of statewide mobilization effort to get out the Republican vote for the November election.

In an interview, Martin said part of the reason for national figures coming into help is because he’s the chairman of the statewide “victory” committee. He also attributed it to “good old fashion ‘don’t stop asking,’" as well as a “friendship” with Perry that began when the three-term governor came in for his Cape Girardeau fundraiser.

“I have found in my short experience of two election cycles that you have to make concerted effort to build moment so people start to say to each other both in the political class in Missouri and in the national political class ‘hey – this campaign has some energy,’” he said.

But Martin also said Koster’s future potential also plays a role in getting big names to help him out. He added that one supporter told him that if Republicans had defeated Democrat Claire McCaskill when she ran for auditor in 1998, she may never have become a U.S. Senator.

“I say it to anyone whenever they ask – I say ‘you can beat Chris Koster for a couple million bucks now or you could run against him in four year for $10 or $15 million.’ I make it part of the sales pitch,” Martin said. “Gov. Rick Perry is a former head of the Republican Governors Association and I think that’s something he understands. For every person who says ‘Ed Martin could run for [another statewide] office sometime’ you have one or more that say ‘Chris Koster is someone we really need to stop now.’”

Asked about the national figures and whether it's being done to stop the incumbent's future ambitions, Koster campaign manager Rachel Levine said the swirl of activity is a sign that "Ed Martin can't pull his own weight." She added that "D.C. operatives can see that Martin is not up for the job of Missouri's top law enforcement officer, so they're sending in the calvary to try to hide that fact."

To be sure, Koster has a number of things going for him if he wishes to advance to another office: That includes fundraising prowess, moderate-to-conservative positions on the issues and the historically potent springboard of the attorney general’s office. And Koster's 2008 crucible showed that he could successfully manuever through a challenging electoral landscape.

“The Democrat that can win the gubernatorial election has to have moderation in his background, has to have some conservative element, has to have a pickup truck, has to shoot guns with his father as a childhood, has to be a prosecutor who threw criminals in jail,” said George Connor, a political science professor at Missouri State University. “Looking at his resume – without thinking about the primary right now – he is probably more electable because of his conservative background than despite it.”

[Koster seems to have the “shoots guns” part down. In his latest ad, he’s seen holding a shotgun as soon as a voiceover states “if you hurt the people of Missouri, this office will prosecute you.” Not only does that imply that Koster will personally come after wrongdoers with a shotgun, but it could also be an subconscious appeal for gun rights.]

But Connor brought up two impediments for Koster.

The first complication, of course, is the current election. While Koster may be able to once again use the “I have a background in criminal law and you don't” message against Martin [as well as other arguments], Connor said shifting demographics may make winning a statewide office more challenging for Democrats. Connor notes that he's been preaching this message whenever he's asked by pesky reporters for his insight on Missouri politics.

While traditionally Democratic areas – such as the city of St. Louis and portions of St. Louis County – are declining in population, Connor said that GOP strongholds such as St. Charles County, Greene County and Christian County are booming. That type of data is important, noting that U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill was able to rebound from her 2004 run for governor by maintaining “her solid Democratic base in the urban areas and then picked up votes in rural counties.”

“The problem is that Democratic core that she had to have to win the second time around is smaller. And then throw in the ideological changes that we’re more conservative than we were a number of years ago, she’s not picking up those outstate votes like she was the last time,” Connor said. “I think Democrats are in trouble – and I think that includes Koster.”

Koster seems to recognize this. In a speech to Missouri delegates at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, Koster said the state party needs to make a stronger effort to attract viable candidates in rural parts of the state to be viable in the future.

The other hitch: If Koster makes it past Martin, there's no gurantee he'll get a free pass for another office. State Treasurer Clint Zweifel is often thrown about as a Koster alternative, especially since the Florissant native spent his time in the Missouri House developing policies to oppose the GOP majority.That could be an enticing attribute for Democrats who turn out for primaries.

Of course, four years is a lifetime in Missouri politics. After all, conventional wisdom about House Speaker Steve Tilley, R-Perryville, becoming the presumptive heir to the lieutenant governorship and Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder challenging Gov. Jay Nixon evaporated within a matter of weeks. 

And given Koster’s history of surprising people, charting out his distant political future may be a tad premature.

Rocky Mountain High, Show Me State Low?

Other factors impact down-ballot statewide races besides demographics, such as the performance of Republicans higher on the ticket. 

If, for instance, GOP U.S. Senate nominee Todd Akin doesn't fare well against McCaskill, that could bode well for other Democratic statewide hopefuls. Money is also important, and all five Democratic hopefuls for statewide offices have a fundraising advantage for now.

And as McCaskill found out during her unsuccessful gubernatorial bid, the presidential race looms particularly large. While GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney had a particularly rough week, that doesn’t change the fact that Democrats aren’t putting nearly as much energy in winning Missouri as they did four years ago. 

One small anecdote: While this reporter was in Colorado earlier this month, that state's commerical airwaves were dominated by presidential advertisements. Save for some cable spots, that type of situation hasn't occurred in Missouri.

Compare that to 2008, when Democrats launched a full-court press to win Missouri: An effort that included oodles of television ads, high-profile appearances from Obama and then-U.S. Sen. Joe Biden and a robust statewide campaign organization. Those types of things certainly helped candidates such as Koster or Zweifel win election to open statewide offices. Barring a big sea change, they may not be available this time around.

Campaign Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads from the world of Missouri politics. 

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