Hot Races to Watch: Missouri Governor

The GOP's 'Akin' for a standard bearer in the Show Me State

In 2010 the GOP kicked off a successive three-cycle route of Democrats in Midwestern governors’ mansions and Missouri could be the party’s big 2016 chance to extend that dominance. Democrats lost their grip on Michigan, Ohio, Kansas, Iowa, and Wisconsin in 2010. The GOP beat back strong challenges in 2012 and protected all of its gains in 2014, expanding the Midwest reach with a win in deep-blue Illinois.

But reminiscent of the GOP’s once-promising challenge to Sen. Claire McCaskill in 2012, the Republicans hoping to win Missouri’s top job are locked in a brutal and uncertain primary battle, while the Democrats are united around their standard-bearer. There are even familiar faces like businessman John Brunner, who ran and ultimately lost to Rep. Todd Akin in the 2012 GOP primary for Senate. McCaskill later clobbered Akin by double digits, despite President Obama losing Missouri by nearly 10 points to Mitt Romney, after Akin damaged himself and Republicans nationwide with the infamous “legitimate rape” gaffe fiasco.

Brunner, who spent $7.5 million of his own money on the 2012 Senate primary, is one of four Republican candidates with a shot at winning the nomination for governor in 2016. The others are: former Navy SEAL and nonprofit executive Eric Greitens, Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder, and former Missouri House Speaker Catherine Hanaway.

None of the GOP candidates seem to have a clear advantage, and the fundraising scene paints the picture of an evenly matched Republican landscape. Eric Greitens brought in the most of any GOP candidate in the first half of 2016 with $1 million. Brunner has the capacity to lend his campaign at least that amount, if not several times more, and Hanaway may be rallying outside conservative support. The Missouri chapter of one of the conservative world’s most effective super PACs, the Club for Growth, has already invested several hundred thousand dollars towards boosting Hanaway in the contest.

Whichever GOP candidate does ultimately pulls through the crowded and evenly matched contest will at least have the advantage of trend lines on their side to potentially blast off the muck of the primary.

Republicans have been steadily gaining ground in the state, and following sweeping victories in 2014 the party dominates the Missouri General Assembly. Republicans have 25 seats in the state Senate to the Democrats’ paltry 9, and 118 seats in the state House of Representatives, compared to 45 for the Democrats.

[lz_table title=”Missouri General Election Matchups” source=”DMF Research March 24″]GOP Candidate, AG Chris Koster
John Brunner 28%, 42%
Eric Greitens 24%, 41%
Catherine Hanaway 31%, 43%
Peter Kinder 37%, 39%

But McCaskill proved Democrats can hold on in Missouri if they wage a disciplined, strong campaign against a weak opponent. Democrats think they have another winner in Attorney General Chris Koster, who has posted impressive fundraising hauls and consolidated his support in the party. Koster raised $4 million in the summer of 2015 alone; his $2.2 million haul in the first quarter of 2016 outpaced the entire GOP field combined, who collected roughly $2.1 million. A poll conducted by DMF Research in March found Koster beating every GOP candidate in head-to-head matchups.

Operating in a race devoid of a clear Republican standard-bearer, Koster has already begun to define his candidacy against the foil of presidential GOP front-runner Donald Trump. In an effort to define himself as the anti-Trump candidate, Koster recently released a digital ad slamming the GOP front-runner for a slew of his more incendiary comments on John McCain, women, the disabled New York Times journalist, and others.

[lz_third_party includes=”https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gEW9vRlM9Sw”]

Well-regarded political soothsayers, including the Cook Political Report and Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball, rate the race as a pure toss-up, but Republicans will need to rally strongly behind whoever emerges standing from the Aug. 2 GOP primary. That candidate will likely take the GOP banner with deeply depleted campaign coffers from the hard nomination fight and will need outside aid from the Republican Governors Association or friendly super PACs to compete toe-to-toe with Koster’s war chest.

The Missouri contest could extend Republican victories over state houses and governors’ mansions across the Midwest, but only if the eventual nominee is not too badly bloodied by the intense primary battle being fought, and Koster can be tripped up by a well-run GOP campaign.

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