NEW MADRID, Mo. — One local cameraman was waiting when Chris Koster stepped out of his car. The attorney general of Missouri, now the Democrats’ candidate for governor, was getting a quick, friendly tour of a new 911 call center. The small Mississippi River city had really needed it, and after scoping out the space where more phones would go, Koster made a few remarks about why New Madrid could trust him.
“I don’t want to be partisan,” Koster said, “but when I’m down here, and I talk to conservative Republican farmers, the first question they’ve got is, ‘You’re not going to raise our taxes, right?’ No, I was in favor of the tax cut of 2014. They ask, ‘You’re not going to take our guns, right?’ No, I’m the candidate in this race who was endorsed by the National Rifle Association.”
Not many Democrats are endorsed by the NRA — not in 2016. The Democrats’ presidential ticket, which trails in every Missouri poll, is being buffeted by NRA ads that warn of a Clinton presidency that would yank guns from defenseless people. But down the ticket, there’s Koster. And in the race for Senate, there’s Secretary of State Jason Kander, an Army veteran who blunted NRA attack ads by assembling an AR-15, blindfolded, for his own 30-second spot.
Democrats no longer need Missouri to win the presidency, but they need states like Missouri to have any hope of winning Congress and state houses. And the surprisingly buoyant campaigns of Koster and Kander suggest how Democrats can compete in red America — and how a few lucky breaks may have given them a reprieve.
The 111th Congress, which convened at the start of President Obama’s first term and passed the most progressive legislation since the 1970s, included 12 Democratic senators from red states won by either John McCain or Mitt Romney.
Today, those states send only five Democrats to the Senate. The picture is grimmer in House districts and state legislatures gerrymandered after the 2010 Republican wave — especially in Missouri, where Republicans command a supermajority.
Even before Donald Trump’s polling swoon, the Democratic theory of 2016 relied on a new America replacing the old. Obama won while badly losing the white vote; Hillary Clinton would improve on that as white voters fell to around 70 percent of the electorate. The new battlegrounds would be fast-growing, diverse states like Arizona and North Carolina; they would be won with progressive policies on immigration reform, gay rights and gun control.
States like Missouri — mostly white, mostly rural and hardly growing at all — were left behind. Koster, who had been a moderate Republican legislator until 2007, was running as a “conservative Democrat, not a moderate Democrat,” who worried what politics would look like if the two parties settled into concrete on the right and left.
“I do have a real concern that the national Democratic Party is leaving states like Missouri on the other side of the blue wall,” said Koster in an interview during the New Madrid visit. “If presidential politics is driving the Democratic agenda, I fear that people who make those decisions are just forgetting about people in Missouri. It just is a much more conservative state.”
In interviews, Missouri Republicans admitted that the two Democrats were running strong, but they pointed out that neither had to face a primary. Hillary Clinton narrowly bested Bernie Sanders in the state’s primary, by moving to the left. Kander and Koster didn’t have to explain themselves to progressives at all. In Koster’s case, he never had to answer for the votes he cast – pro-gun, anti-Medicaid expansion — as a Republican state senator.
“He only has a voting record as a Republican,” said Rep. Jason T. Smith (R-Mo.), who represents the southeast Missouri district that covers New Madrid. “That’s how he got the NRA endorsement, and that’s how he got the farm endorsements.”
Those endorsements have helped Koster run ahead of Eric Greitens, an ex-Navy SEAL and philanthropist who scored an upset win in the state’s Republican primary. The messiness of that primary, in which Greitens stood out with an ad that largely consisted of him shooting a gun, was another factor helping Koster. Trump has consistently led in polls, while a Monmouth University poll released last week found Koster clinging to a 3-point lead over Greitens.
That represented an improvement for Greitens, and from a quick glance, no one would guess that he was trailing. Having rebuffed an effort — by Democrats — to draft him into a congressional race, Greitens is running as a “conservative outsider,” inspired at last to enter public service because of incumbent Gov. Jay Nixon’s (D) meandering response to the unrest in Ferguson.
On Saturday, days before the end of voter registration, Greitens crossed the state for five town-hall meetings. At afternoon stops in the Ozarks, he matter-of-factly offered up the sort of biography that a campaign might want to grow in a lab — war stories, the founding of The Mission Continues charity for veterans, a spot on Time’s 100 Most Influential People in the World.
“I was in the SEAL team training on 9/11,” he said. “That obviously changed all of our roles.”
Greitens’s campaign against Koster is simple. Koster is a Clinton voter; Greitens is not. Koster is a politician — “a corrupt politician,” Greitens always says — while his opponent is a citizen. Koster has tried to separate the race from the top of the ballot, running on a pledge to raise the minimum wage and increase funding for education. He’s tried to hold Greitens down by demanding the release of his taxes, with one ad now on the air attacking the Republican for the six-figure salary his charity paid out.
In Greitens’s latest ad, a succession of voters promise not to vote for “corruption as usual” and “big spending liberals,” or for “Hillary’s Obamacare expansion” — a way to toxify Koster’s support of the Medicaid money offered by the Affordable Care Act.
At a town-hall meeting in Lebanon, Greitens rattled off his conservative platform to applause and took questions about whether he could move further to the right. Tom Rhoadlander, 62, asked if Greitens “believed in God.” (He is Jewish.) Kay Harvey, 71, asked if he would oppose Sharia law coming to Missouri. (He would.)
Harvey said she’d been won over by Greitens. Sporting a “Make America Great Again” pin, just a day after Republicans began abandoning Donald Trump’s campaign for president, she said she was resolute.
She just wasn’t ready to back Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), the incumbent who has held office in Missouri since Ronald Reagan was president. “Blunt doesn’t represent me,” Harvey explained. “His hands are just as filthy as the rest of them.”
The same polls that show Trump and Koster winning have Blunt just narrowly ahead of Kander. The Democrat, who jumped into the race in March 2015, when it looked unwinnable, has pulled in some anti-everything voters who simply want Blunt gone.
“Donald Trump’s entire candidacy is predicated on the idea that people like Sen. Blunt are the problem,” Kander said in an interview near his Columbia campaign office. “We’ve had rallies where you walk out and there’s a loud argument between Trump and Clinton supporters — but they were both just inside our rallies!”
Blunt, meanwhile, is in the most precarious position of any 2016 candidate — the Republican who has won elections and done his job, only to embody the nebulous “establishment.” In an interview last week, after running through the mental health and child abuse bills he’d work with Democrats to pass, Blunt suggested that Kander was benefiting from ignorance about what the Senate actually did.
“He’s not really running for anything,” said Blunt. “I’ve gotten things done in an atmosphere where people don’t get things done. The dispersed media, the diminished role that local news has played over the last few years, make it hard to keep track of what a senator’s doing.”
The Trump campaign, which has redefined what Republicans stand for, is the X-factor. Careening from gaffe to gaffe, Trump has found that populism, and a sense that a broken system has to be brought down, are more powerful than most issues — or most political accomplishments.
“I guess Sen. Blunt thinks what he’s doing is pandering to the people who gravitate to a candidate because that candidate represents shaking up the conversation,” Kander said. “But when he does that, voters do not admire somebody who puts their party before their country. Even people who might ultimately vote for Donald Trump are not going to be swayed.”