ST. LOUIS • Three-and-half years out, the race for Missouri governor has begun.
Democratic state Attorney General Chris Koster confirmed Tuesday that he is planning to seek the state’s top office in 2016, when fellow Democrat Jay Nixon — who just won his second term six months ago — will be forced out by term limits.
“We are making the necessary preparations and building consensus around the state toward that end,” Koster told the Associated Press in Jefferson City.
A Koster spokeswoman said later on Tuesday that he would have no further comment.
Koster made the comment in response to reporters’ questions, not as part of any formal announcement. Still, it essentially confirmed his long-expected candidacy and, with other recent events, had all the hallmarks of a coordinated party decision.
It came on the heels of Democratic state Treasurer Clint Zweifel’s announcement this week that he won’t seek the governor’s office in 2016, effectively clearing the field for Koster.
“The early move by the Democrats will allow the Republican Party three-plus years to define the ultra-liberal empty suit that is Chris Koster,” Missouri Republican Party Executive Director Shane Schoeller said in an emailed statement. “We now have a clear target.”
But to Democratic consultants like Jack Cardetti, the political benefits of having a clear party favorite and a possibly uncontested primary far outweigh any drawbacks.
“It helps with fundraising, with garnering political support, it helps with strategy,” said Cardetti, who noted Koster’s proven statewide electoral strength in his two campaigns for attorney general.
It also could put Republicans on the defensive and force the party to scramble for a 2016 standard-bearer. No clear one has yet emerged.
“They certainly have plenty of time to coalesce around a candidate,” said Cardetti. But until they do, “a lot of (donors) will be sitting on their hands,” waiting for a likely nominee.
Democrats are in an odd electoral position in Missouri, where they hold control of most statewide positions, but have been decimated in the Legislature. All of it is against the backdrop of a state electorate that has moved rightward in the past few years.
Democratic officials interviewed Tuesday repeatedly referenced the extraordinary importance the party is placing on unity, as a means of keeping the seats they’ve got and making inroads in Jefferson City.
That caution has been evident in the absence of virtually any public discord between major Democrats on the question of 2016, even as Zweifel and Koster rose as possible gubernatorial rivals.
Before Zweifel confirmed that he won’t run, he quietly informed top Democrats, including Nixon and Sen. Claire McCaskill, according to Zweifel spokesman Mike Pridmore.
Schoeller, the state GOP executive director, responded in his emailed statement: “Clint Zweifel stepping aside for Chris Koster is no great surprise following recent trends by Missouri Democrats. Of late, the Democrat playbook is to speak like a Republican then act like a liberal.”
No matter who the Republicans ultimately nominate to run, that candidate is likely to have the help of someone who has run against Koster before: Ed Martin, now chairman of the Missouri Republican Party. He was the party’s 2012 nominee for attorney general when Koster was seeking his current second term.
Martin tried to tie that contest to national ideological issues like Obamacare, where Republicans have a clear advantage among Missourians. Koster avoided that battle and made it a debate about professional qualifications and accomplishments. He ended up winning by 15 points.
In an emailed statement Tuesday, Martin characterized the potential GOP gubernatorial field in enthusiastic, if vague, terms. “Republicans have a bench as deep as the 1927 Yankees!” Martin wrote.
That bench may include John Brunner, the wealthy businessman who lost the Republican U.S. Senate nomination to Todd Akin last year before Akin went on to defeat against McCaskill. State auditor Tom Schweich has also been mentioned as a possible candidate. And Missouri has five Republican U.S. House members, several of whom could be serious contenders for the asking.