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Koster's NRA endorsement over Greitens is hardly a surprise

Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster greets attendees at the Truman Dinner, the Missouri Democratic Party's annual gathering.
File photo by Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster greets attendees at the Truman Dinner earlier this year.

Some have described the National Rifle Association’s decision to endorse Democratic gubernatorial nominee Chris Koster over GOP hopeful Eric Greitens as surprising or out of the blue.But for people who pay attention to how the group endorses candidates, Koster’s endorsement was actually quite predictable.

That’s because the NRA typically backs candidates with definitive voting records (like Koster) over political newcomers (like Greitens). It’s exactly what happened in 2012, when the NRA backed Koster’s re-election bid for attorney general over Republican nominee Ed Martin.

In fact, the “experience versus newness” argument was explicitly referenced in the group’s news release that announced Koster’s endorsement. The NRA cited Koster’s votes as a (Republican) state senator,including efforts to expand the state’s “Castle Doctrine” law.The release also, among other things, pointed to his advocacy for conceal and carry when he was Cass County prosecutor and his support of a 2014 constitutional amendment aimed at protecting gun rights.

“Chris Koster has never wavered from his Second Amendment beliefs. For over 17 years, he has fought to preserve the constitutional rights of law-abiding Missourians,” said Chris W. Cox, chairman of the NRA’s Political Victory Fund.

Koster received an “A” rating from the NRA this year — a step above Greitens’ “AQ” rating. The person who came in second place in the GOP primary, John Brunner, also received an “AQ” rating, which means that Koster still probably would have received the NRA endorsement had the businessman won. ("AQ" is defined by the NRA as "a pro-gun candidate whose rating is based solely on the candidate's responses to" the group's questionnaire and who "does not have a voting record on Second Amendment issues." It's the highest rating that a candidate without a voting record can receive.)

The process may have gone differently had either Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder or former U.S. Attorney Catherine Hanaway won the Republican primary. Kinder received the NRA’s highest rating (A+), while Hanaway, like Koster, received an A.

In addition to Koster, the NRA endorsed Republican Secretary of State candidate Jay Ashcroft and GOP Attorney General nominee Josh Hawley. While neither Ashcroft nor Hawley have been elected to office before, their Democratic opponents (attorney nominee Teresa Hensley and secretary of state hopeful Robin Smith)  have not been as upfront as Koster in support of gun rights.

Eric Greitens speaks at an event held in support of Mike Pence and Donald Trump in Chesterfield this week.
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Eric Greitens speaks at an event held in support of Mike Pence and Donald Trump in Chesterfield this week.


Still, a number of people took note of the Koster endorsement over Greitens for a specific reason: Greitens’ campaign released two commercials that featured the former Navy SEAL shooting guns, including one where his marksmanship sparked an explosion in an open field.

Soon after he captured the GOP nomination for governor, St. Louis Public Radio asked Greitens about the possibility that Koster may receive the NRA endorsement. He replied: “What we focus on is what we can control.”

“I'm a strong supporter of the Second Amendment. I believe that everybody has the constitutional right to protect themselves and to defend their families,” Greitens said. “And we're going to make our case to the people of Missouri, and that's how this election is going to be won.”

It remains to be seen how the NRA endorsement will affect Koster, who said in a statement he “was pleased to receive the group's support.” The move could bolster Koster’s ability to nab votes in outstate Missouri, especially after he received a number of prominent endorsements from big name agriculture groups.

But the endorsement could complicate messaging for other Missouri Democrats.

Some of the state’s left-of-center politicians and activists openly revile the NRA, and have often criticized Republicans (like U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt) who seek out or receive the group’s endorsement. In fact, Kansas City Mayor Sly James said during the Democratic National Convention that he wanted to see more robust political opposition to the state’s gun control opponents — including raising money to defeat them at the polls.James emphasized, though, that he supported Koster, even though he disagrees with him on gun control issues.

(The group America Rising, which does opposition research against Democratic candidates, noted that Democratic Gubernatorial Association chairman and Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy has said disparaging things in the past against the NRA. The DGA has provided substantial financial resources to Koster.)

Still, Koster said earlier this year that his party could respectfully disagree on gun control issues. He has also noted that rural Missourians he’s encountered oppose gun control proposals.

“And I’ve said in many places, rural Missouri wants to see small and fiscally conservative government,” Koster said. “They want individual rights respected, including the Second Amendment. But then they want what everybody else wants in this state: Which is they want schools funded, they want roads fixed, and they want health care to stop shutting its doors and leaving their communities. That is a group of principles that I feel comfortable around.”

One thing's clear: Regardless of who wins Missouri's gubernatorial contest, it's highly likely that any efforts to restrict firearms will face a veto. That hasn't always been the case during the administration of Gov. Jay Nixon, especially because a multifaceted gun bill will be one of the key items of contention during next week's veto session.

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