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Many Missouri Democrats see Trump as a pathway to victory

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

Updated June 13, 2016 with statement from Carrier, in response to Koster speech  -- Over dinner and drinks Thursday night at Busch Stadium, hundreds of Missouri Democrats exuded more optimism than they have in years.

Everyone seemed happy with Hillary Clinton as their party’s presidential nominee. But many were even happier that Donald Trump is leading the opposition.

Said state Democratic Party chairman Roy Temple: “The Republican Party has become a toxic brand and they do not have a positive vision for the country and they have a nominee that the country would be in peril if he were elected president.”

U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, who remained in Washington because of key Senate votes, offered a similar view in a video played on the giant screen at Busch.  The key objective for Democrats, she said, is “to make sure that Donald Trump does not become president of the United States.”

And former Sen. Jean Carnahan observed in an interview that – in her opinion -– Trump’s candidacy gives a solid boost to Clinton. “I think she has a much greater likelihood of getting elected than she might have had a year ago," Carnahan said.

That common view that Trump’s name is toxic may be why Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander is ready to make Trump an issue in his quest to unseat U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo.

Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander at state Democrats' annual Truman Dinner.
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander at state Democrats' annual Truman Dinner.

“Sen. Blunt supports an extremist who’s unfit to be president of the United States,” Kander said. “Sen. Blunt knows that, and if you were to ask him how he feels about Donald Trump while hooked up to a lie-detector, I think it’d be interesting to see how that goes.”

Amid all that optimism, Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster’s wariness on the topic of Trump stood out.  The likely Democratic nominee for governor said in an interview that Trump’s political impact appears to fluctuate wildly.

“I think it’s too early to tell,’’ Koster said. “Every 10 days it seems like it’s a completely different reality that we’re looking at.”

For one thing, Koster – a former Republican – observed that it’s no secret that over the past 20 years, Missouri has become a tough state for national Democrats. Bill Clinton was the last Democratic presidential nominee to carry the state, in 1996.

Although Koster supports Hillary Clinton, he said it was too early to say how hard she will work to carry the state. For one thing, President Barack Obama's two successful campaigns have demonstrated that a Democrat doesn't need Missouri to win the White House.

Koster calls for GOP to focus on education, not explosions

But while Koster may be reluctant to buy into some Democrats'  Trump euphoria, he did appear eager to slam Missouri Republicans on other fronts.

“Has anybody seen these Republican gubernatorial ads that are up this week?" Koster said with a chuckle, as he launched into the evening's keynote address “Has anybody seen these things? Everywhere I’ve gone this week, I’m asked the same question: 'What’s that thing blowing up in the distance?’ “

At the Democrat Party's biggest fundraiser of the year, tables were filled with politicians and top donors.
Credit Jo Mannies | St. Louis Public Radio
At the Democrat Party's biggest fundraiser of the year, tables were filled with politicians and top donors.

Koster was referring to Republican candidate Eric Greitens’ ad, in which the former Navy SEAL uses his assault weapon to shoot something, which then erupts into flames. Greitens’  implication is that he wants to blow up the status quo in Jefferson City.

But Koster asserted that the explosion actually represented a common GOP quest for decades. “It’s the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education,’’ he said. “They’ve been trying to blow it up for 15 years.”

Koster lambasted the GOP for its longstanding opposition to the higher school-aid formula (which included some tax hikes) that then-Gov Mel Carnahan put in place in the early 1990s.

Koster noted that Republican legislators earlier this year had revamped the state’s “foundation formula’’ – the system used to award school aid – so that they didn’t need to put in as much money.

Such cost-cutting policies, said Koster, have resulted in 15 rural Missouri school districts being in session only four days a week because they can’t afford a five-day school week. And the state’s public university system, he added, is becoming too costly for many families.

At Northwest Missouri State University in Maryville, for example, Koster said that state revenue only provides 25 percent of the school funding. That’s down dramatically from the 75 percent state share 20 years ago, he said.

Students and their families are forced to make up the difference, Koster said.

Koster then asserted that Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder was being irresponsible for calling for more tax cuts, which would result in more state program cuts, without waiting for the tax cuts approved in 2014 to go into effect.

Koster contended that his Republican rivals seemed to be oblivious to the impact that state spending, or lack of, was having on Missouri residents.

He called for action to improve the state’s roads and bridges. And with labor leaders in the audience, Koster also highlighted his opposition to “right to work," which would curb union rights in the workplace.

Koster pointed to the results in Indiana, which became a right to work state just a few years ago. He said wages and benefits have dropped, and some companies – he singled out Carrier – still shut down their Indiana operations and moved to Mexico. (Carrier  said in a statement Monday the move near Monterrey, Mexico, "will occur over the course of an estimated three-year period. The plan anticipates no immediate impact on jobs as the relocation would occur in phases, with work movement expected to begin in 2017 and estimated project completion in 2019.")

His commitment as a candidate and if elected governor, said Koster, “is to make sure that the people of the state of Missouri never make such a foolish mistake.”

As for Missouri's contest for governor, he observed, “My hope is that the next five months will have some elements of maturity and dignity, less concentration on pyrotechnics, more concentration on education policy because that’s what I think is in the best interest of this state.”

Jo Mannies is a freelance journalist and former political reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.