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Incumbent Kinder faces energetic GOP opponent in primary for lieutenant governor

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 24, 2012 - Incumbent officeholders rarely face competitive primaries in contests for re-election. But that isn’t the case for Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder’s bid for a third term in office.

After deciding against running for governor, Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder is facing a fierce internal fight in his jaunt for a third term. Although Kinder has never lost a race, he faces his biggest challenge to date against state Sen. Brad Lager, R-Savannah, who narrowly lost a bid for state treasurer in 2008.

Additionally, Wentzville attorney Mike Carter, who ran as a Democrat for the office in 2008, is running this time as a Republican. And state Sen. Luann Ridgeway, R-Smithville, set up a committee to raise money for the office. (The Democratic field has attracted four candidates — all women.)

After some less-than-flattering headlines, Kinder said he is ready to “put his chinstrap on” in his campaign for re-election. Kinder had to wade through some controversies last year. He faced reports taxpayer-covered hotel stays in St. Louis, in which he eventually paid $52,320 of his own money to repay. He also had to deal with news articles about his acquaintance with a former stripper and Penthouse pet.

Pointing to his tenure in office and his reputation as a “team player” for Missouri Republicans, Kinder said he’s earned more time at his job.

But while Kinder points to his long record, Lager emphasizes a need for new blood. He’s also drawing sharp distinctions with Kinder on the issues, such as the historic preservation tax credit.

Ultimately, the primary may come down to something as simple as turnout. And it may also show whether Republicans want to stick with a familiar face or move on.

“Because he’s running for re-election in an office he already holds, [Kinder] would be considered a favorite in the race,” said Dave Robertson, a political science professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. “But Lager is a quite young, quite active legislator who’s visible. Even though he represents a district in a northwest corner of the state, he’s been able to get a little statewide publicity on a couple of things. So Lager has some strength in this race.”

A changing field

Originally, the lieutenant governor’s race was going to be House Speaker Steve Tilley’s entry into statewide politics. The Perryville Republican’s effective fundraising skills and pragmatic stances made him a strong candidate to succeed Kinder, who was first elected to the lieutenant governorship in 2004.

Kinder meanwhile seemed focused on challenging Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon. As the only Republican statewide official after the 2008 elections, Kinder has taken an active role in leading the opposition against the Democratic governor.

But plans changed in relatively quick succession: Tilley dropped out of the lieutenant governor’s race while Kinder left the gubernatorial contest. 

Almost immediately after Tilley’s announcement, Lager was one of several candidates to jump into lieutenant governor’s race.

Dave Spence, a Frontenac businessman, and Kansas City attorney Bill Randles are now vying for the GOP nomination for governor.

In an interview, Kinder portrayed himself as a key player in the Republican legislative take-over in the early 2000s. Kinder listed his accomplishments in the Senate, from helping to enact a ban on late-term abortions to helping to pave the way for conceal and carry in the state.

As lieutenant governor, Kinder said he’s been active promoting a program to provide low-income seniors with prescription drugs. He championed the Tour of Missouri, a bike race eventually quashed by Nixon due to budget concerns. Kinder also pointed to his support of tax credits to revitalize north St. Louis and his advocacy for charter schools and tuition tax credits.

“My record in the Senate — and my record as lieutenant governor — reflect that pretty much any conservative cause you can name in the last 15 or more years, I’ve been in the middle of,” Kinder said. “Not just in the middle of the battle, but in the middle of the battle of putting the ball in the end zone and producing results.”

He also said he’s been a “team player,” campaigning for dozens of Republican candidates in 2010 when he wasn’t on the ballot.

“To have 53 state representatives endorsing my candidacy is a testament to the work I’ve done for our causes and for the party,” Kinder said. Campaigning for other candidates “demonstrated a commitment that I have shown throughout my career to help the team. I want to see broad success in the Republican and the conservative cause.”

Kinder’s decision to run for re-election is not entirely out of character, While Kinder considered running for governor in 2008, former state Rep. Jack Jackson  announced his candidacy for lieutenant governor. But when Kinder stood down in the name of party unity, he effectively drove the former Wildwood lawmaker from the race.

Unlike Jackson, Lager did not stand down. In fact, he outflanked Kinder in the most recent fundraising quarter by taking in roughly $733,000 during the final months of 2011. That was more than Kinder’s $118,457.43 haul, though Lager does have less cash on hand.

While Lager said in an interview that he’s been pressured to step aside, he said he is in for the long haul. He’s already netted big donations, including a $250,000 contribution from Joplin businessman David Humphreys, $250,000 from the Herzog Contracting Company in St. Joseph and $100,000 from former Kansas City area congressional candidate Jeanne Patterson.

“We’re at this point where we’re trying to find out what the future of our nation will look like,” Lager said. “And people are really thinking about what they want the future of their state to be like.”

To be sure, Lager is not a political neophyte. In the Missouri House, he served as chairman of the chamber’s budget committee. After a clash with then-House Speaker Rod Jetton, he was replaced with Rep. Allen Icet, R-Wildwood.

Since Lager’s election to the Missouri Senate in 2006, he’s played a key role in debates about tax credits, building a second nuclear plant in Callaway County and the state’s workplace discrimination laws. He narrowly lost to Clint Zweifel, a Democrat from Florissant, in the 2008 contest for state treasurer.

But while Lager is not necessarily an unknown, he’s positioning himself as a candidate that can take the state party into the future.

“As I travel around the state and meet with people, people aren’t saying negative things about any of the other candidates,” Lager said. “They’re just looking for a new vision, new blood. And the one thing I think I’ve heard more than anything else is its just time for new leadership.”

Ridgeway — who did not return a request from the Beacon for an interview — could also be a factor in the race. She told the Associated Press earlier this year that she was seriously considering the race. 

The Smithville attorney played a role in passing legislation that provided incentives to keep a Ford plant outside of Kansas City open. She also has handled so-called “right-to-work” legislation, as well as a bill to replace the state income tax with an expanded sales tax.

Carter, who received 16.3 percent of vote in 2008 while running as a Democrat, has so far raised little money for the contest. In press releases, the Wentzville attorney styles himself after Ross Perot and U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, R-Tex.

Distinctions and contrasts

Candidates for lieutenant governor can choose which issues to champion because the office has no required duties. And unlike the Democratic primary, which features candidates with relatively similar views, Kinder and Lager have marked disagreements on tax credits.

Lager has been a longtime critic of the historic preservation tax credit, an incentive to rehab older buildings. Lager said the issue comes down to being prudent with state spending during a difficult budgetary time.

“The current structure — in my humble opinion — is not what’s best for the future of the state,” Lager said. “For me, it’s not necessarily one individual program that’s going to be the difference. It’s going to be our fundamental philosophical differences of how government spends money and how elected officials manage that money.”

Lager has clashed with Nixon on many issues. The governor vetoed Lager’s bill to revamp the state’s workforce discrimination laws. That could mean a testy relationship if both Lager and Nixon won their elections.

“At the end of the day, (the governor is opposed to) some of things we need to do for our state (to) change the economic opportunities here,” said Lager. “At the end of the day, if the relationships and the personal interaction have degraded so far that two individuals can’t work together, I don’t think that’s good for the taxpayers as a whole. That doesn’t mean any elected official should sacrifice their principles or any moral beliefs or anything like that.”

Conversely, Kinder has been a strong proponent of the historic tax credits — even standing with Democratic politicians in a press conference decrying an attempt to curtail the incentive.

Kinder said tax credits have benefited many areas of the state.

“It is wrong to view the credits as favoring only St. Louis or Kansas City. I will stoutly defend the credits because I’ve seen their effect in Boonville and Fayette and Neosho and Joplin and Cape Girardeau and all over the state,” Kinder said. “I will be happy to campaign on that record, and others may make of it what they will. I am puzzled at the notion that some people want to run against the large population centers in our state. I don’t quite get that.”

Both Lager and Kinder are preparing up for an possibly expensive — and negative — primary. Lager said his campaign to unseat Kinder won’t be easy.

“I’m running against an incumbent, an incumbent that spent three years running for governor who raised millions of dollars and has a pretty healthy war chest,” Lager said. “But at the end of that, that’s OK. I have a very clear vision and message that I’m going to articulate. And it’s going to be a message that the voters agree with.”

And while Kinder said he plans to emphasize his record during the campaign, he added he is prepared to fight back aggressively if attacked. He said he’ll convince GOP voters that he deserves another term “by making an honest, forthright appeal on the record and the approach I’ve always offered.”

“It will be the same kind of largely positive, let’s look at the record approach — the record I’ve established and the record I’m quite prepared to defend,” Kinder said. “And yeah, campaigns are not Sunday school and they’re not a walk in the park.”

He also said he’s not afraid of a significant challenger. He noted that his Democratic opponent in 2008, Sam Page, “was a machine in fundraising and outraised me in a couple quarters leading to the election. And the results are in the record book. I’m prepared to do that again.”

Robertson said that the outcome may come down to turnout in the August primary.

“This may be a kind of a low turnout election for the Republicans in August and for Democrats for that matter,” Robertson said. “It’s going to depend on what happens in campaigning, who gets some advantage in name recognition — Kinder would still have to count as having that — and who’s going to score points with a possibly controversial ad that comes along the way.”

Robertson said the fact that Kinder has received endorsements shows he’s still viable, even after last year’s rough patch.

“He’s earned a lot of credit among Republicans over the years, and the fact that he has name recognition in a low-profile race and was a leading officeholder in the state before Blunt was elected, I think those things are going to be advantageous with him,” Robertson said.

But he added that Lager has an opportunity to end Kinder’s tenure in office.

Lager’s "going to have to organize well in what anyone would expect to be a low-turnout primary. He should be able to do that,” he added. “He’ll remind voters of some of the vulnerabilities that Kinder now, but he’s also going to emphasize that he’s young [and] aggressive. He’s not going to be able to say he’s an outsider, but his youth will allow him to say that he’s going to be energetic in pursuit of the office and keeping it for the Republican Party.”

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