Nine years ago, Chris Koster was a state senator, a former Cass County prosecutor and a rising star within the Missouri Republican Party. Many speculated he would eventually run for governor.
And now he is running for governor, but as a Democrat.
Koster switched parties in 2007, a stunning move that has set the course for his unusual political career. He remains the highest-profile politician in Missouri, at least in modern times, to have made such a move
“I used to be a progressive Republican,’’ Koster said. “Now I’m very, very happy being a conservative Democrat in this state.”
From the beginning, his path has been a struggle. Koster, who grew up in St. Louis, even had to move his party-switch press conference in 2007 from the grounds of St. Louis University High, which he had attended. School officials objected to his support for such things as embryonic stem-cell research. That had been among the issues prompting his switch.
He admits that he was an outcast for a time. “There were parts of the transition period that were a bit lonely. For a long time, the phone didn’t ring very much.”
Calculated or frustrated?
But Koster also emphasizes his gratitude to many Republicans and Democrats who stuck by him. “The things I remember the most were the people who did call and did offer their support,” he said. “It was one of those moments in life when you learn a little bit about your friends.”
Missouri Republican chairman John Hancock knew Koster before the switch. Hancock implied that politics was behind the decision. “He was perhaps the most calculating politician I’ve ever known,” Hancock said. “He would spend great amounts of effort and energy plotting his next step in the political world.”
Critics point to Koster's swift decision, soon after the switch, to launch a 2008 bid — as a Democrat — for Missouri attorney general. He narrowly won a particularly nasty primary in a four-person field, igniting an internal Democratic split that took some time to heal. He then went on to win the general election by defeating a former Senate colleague, Mike Gibbons, R-Kirkwood.
Lawyer Jane Dueker, a prominent Democrat who has known Koster since the two worked at the same pizza parlor in high school, acknowledges the possible political angle to his actions. But she emphasizes that she believes he left the GOP primarily out of frustration. She was among the friends Koster contacted before making public his decision to switch.
“I think he figured out he was swimming upstream with a party that just became too extreme,” Dueker said.
Longtime friend Chuck Hatfield, who's a former top aide to Gov. Jay Nixon, flew around the state with Koster on the day he changed parties. Hatfield ties Koster's decision to a key factor in his character.
Koster's strength, said Hatfield, is "his intellectual curiosity. Chris really wants to understand everybody's position."
Some views in step with Democrats - and some not
Koster, 52, is a self-described fiscal conservative who, until recently, opposed campaign-donation limits. His strong pro-gun record has won him the endorsement of the National Rifle Association. And his support for a controversial right-to-farm measure in 2014 helped him win the backing of most farm groups, including the Missouri Farm Bureau – which hardly ever backs Democrats.
Koster has made no secret for years that he is concerned about the disconnect between many rural Missourians and the state Democratic Party. Missouri Democrats’ dramatic loss in numbers in the General Assembly are due largely to the disappearance of rural Democrats — candidates as well as voters.
“I think you have to broaden the Democratic message and recruit candidates who reflect the values of the community they’re being elected in,’’ he said.
At the same time, Koster has scored political points with progressive urban Democrats by frequently headlining their fundraising events.
Koster also is a staunch supporter of labor, which has provided a huge chunk of the $22 million he has raised so far for his campaign.
More than 1,000 union workers cheered him on at a recent rally in St. Charles. “On Nov. 8, we’re going to decide the future of the wages and conditions and security of working people in our states,” Koster declared. “And we’re going to win.”
He promises to continue to oppose “right to work,’’ which would bar unions and employers from requiring all workers in a bargaining unit to pay dues or fees. Koster points to states such as Indiana, which passed the ban in recent years, and cites statistics showing that workers in right-to-work states earn about 15 percent less than their peers in union states.
“Donald Trump knows this,’’ Koster said in his rally speech. “He said it out loud on a Fox News debate last spring. ‘The problem with the United States of America is that working folks make too much money.’ … That’s what the man believes in his heart.”
National AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka said Koster’s contest with Republican Eric Greitens is the most important governor’s race in the country, as far as labor is concerned.
Competent or corrupt?
Koster supports gay rights and equal pay for women and has been trying to forge a middle course on reproductive issues like abortion. He says his views on abortion rights are similar to those of outgoing Gov. Nixon.
If elected, Koster promises to work with Republican legislative leaders to come up with compromises on many issues, especially ethics reforms which he believes are needed for state lawmakers. He praises House Speaker Todd Richardson, R-Poplar Bluff, and Senate President Pro Tem Ron Richard, R-Joplin.
But Koster’s chief campaign theme centers on competence. He has used that issue to slam Greitens, who has never held political office.
“Our government is an amazingly complicated entity. It’s $27 billion in revenue, there’s 16 cabinet departments, 53,000 employees," Koster said. "And the role of governor is not an entry level job.”
At their only joint appearance, Koster jumped on Greitens’ pledge to hire a chief operating officer if elected, to make sure state government runs efficiently.
“That’s you, Eric,’’ Koster retorted. “The governor is the person who runs the budget. If you don’t know enough to run the state of Missouri, then you shouldn’t apply for the job.”
Greitens, in turn, is attacking Koster as an entrenched and unethical politician. “Under his leadership, Missouri has become a state known for serial corruption, national embarrassment and epic failure,” Greitens said during that appearance, held Sept. 30 before the Missouri Press Association.
No other debates are scheduled, in part because Koster has refused to participate until Greitens releases his tax returns for the last few years. Koster already has done so.
In turn, the state GOP has set up a website – ChrisKoster.org – that is filled with attacks against Koster’s record and character.
Greitens and his allies point in particular to a damaging New York Times story in 2014 that linked how Koster’s office handled some high-profile legal cases to donations to his campaign committee.
Koster has denied any wrongdoing. Even so, he announced a new ethics policy two years ago that bars donations from anyone with legal issues before his office.
Critics question whether he’s followed through. Koster said there’s no question he has. “We have a stricter contribution policy than any candidate in Missouri, and I really believe, any attorney general in the country,” he said.
Koster's campaign says it has returned at least $115,000 in donations from people who had pending business before the attorney general’s office.
For all the turmoil since his party switch, Koster said he’s happy with how things turned out. “I don’t think there’s a pitcher starting for the St Louis Cardinals who likes his job any more than I like my job. I love what I do.”
The Cardinals just finished a so-so season. Koster will find out Nov. 8 if he fared better.
Follow Jo Mannies on Twitter: @jmannies