By Elizabeth Crisp, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
With a contentious primary battle and a crowded slate of candidates, the Missouri lieutenant governor's race is shaping up to be one of this year's more unusual elections.
In all, a dozen people are competing in the Aug. 7 primary in hopes of becoming Missouri's second in command for the next four years. While some have criticized the position as powerless, the state lieutenant governor acts as presiding officer of the state Senate and can vote to break a tie there. The office also serves as the official advocate for the elderly and veterans.
The winners of the Democratic and Republican primaries also will face software developer Matthew Copple of Gladstone, who is running as a Libertarian, and former Republican state Rep. Cynthia L. Davis of the Constitution Party in the Nov. 6 general election.
On the Republican side, two-term incumbent Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder faces a formidable opponent from within his own party.
After deciding not to run for governor this year, Kinder, 58, is seeking a third term, a feat that has been accomplished only once before in Missouri.
State Sen. Brad Lager of Savannah, 37, became Kinder's biggest hurdle in the primary after several other prominent Republicans opted not to run. He has repeatedly beaten Kinder in fundraising, and according to the most recent campaign finance reports, has matched Kinder's cash on hand.
Lager and Kinder have, in recent weeks, begun wading into what could be one of the ugliest primary battles for state office this year.
Each has questioned whether the other is a "real conservative," and they have taken turns trying to best each other in being the most vocal opponent to the federal health care overhaul, which both commonly call "Obamacare."
Influential Republicans across the state have been taking sides.
Lining up on Lager's team are several state senators who rank among the chamber's most conservative, including Jim Lembke of the Lemay area, Brian Nieves of Washington, Jason Crowell of Cape Girardeau and Rob Schaaf of St. Joseph.
He also has wooed heavy-hitting Republican donors Rex Sinquefield and David Humphreys. Both previously donated to Kinder's campaign but combined have given more than half a million to Lager's camp this year.
Meanwhile, Kinder has the backing of prominent talk radio host Rush Limbaugh and state House leaders. After Lager called for a special session to address the Supreme Court's recent health care ruling, House Speaker Steven Tilley and Majority Leader Tim Jones publicly panned the idea in a news release. Both have endorsed Kinder, as have some 60 other representatives.
In this primary, Republican voters are faced with the new-blood conservative versus Kinder's long record of public service.
Each has tried to paint his particular brand as being best for the state.
Kinder can name several programs that he considers success stories of his tenure -- particularly programs dealing with the elderly.
He said he has helped senior meal programs retain steady funding despite the budget crunch and "evangelized" the state's prescription drug program, which has grown from about 17,000 people when he took office to serving more than 200,000 today.
"This is not big government, it's a good program managed by three or four people," he said. "It's a big success."
He has taken a special interest in Alzheimer's disease, which he predicts will spike with the aging of the baby boomer population. "It's going to affect every citizen in America," he said.
Lager, who has run a small cellular phone company in north Missouri and currently works for Kansas City-based health care IT company Cerner, often talks of the need for less government interference and allowing the private sector to pick up programs.
"I want to get government out of the way," he said. "My mindset is all about creating an environment where the private sector will come up with solutions."
Kinder was expected to run for governor, but decided instead to seek a third term as lieutenant governor amid a series of public embarrassments that included revelations in a Post-Dispatch investigation that he had charged thousands of dollars of hotel expenses to taxpayers, often without a corresponding public purpose for the trip, as well as stories about a past relationship with a stripper.
"I just believe its time for new blood -- a new direction," Lager said. "This is not Peter Kinder's seat. This is the people's seat."
It's not the first time that Lager has bucked party leadership. A former House member, he was stripped from his post as chairman of the influential Budget Committee because of a fallout with the chamber's leaders. Lager said he thought more money should be put into reserves, rather than spent.
The House speaker at the time "had another idea," Lager said. "I sleep fine at night knowing that I stood on principle," he said. "I'm a guy that always fights for what I think is right." Kinder said he's not bothered by the challenge from within his own party.
"It's a free country and I don't have any problem with a challenge," he said. "Primaries can be healthy in getting a message out and getting troops fired up for the election in November."
He has taken issues with some of Lager's ads, which Kinder calls "misleading" because they say he was "forced" to repay the state for nearly $55,000 in travel expenses.
"I did not want any taint attached to my name on this so I voluntarily wrote a check -- the biggest check by far that I've ever written in my life -- to the state treasury to remove any taint from my name," he said. "That was, not only the amount highlighted, that was all my travel to that point for going on six years in office."
Lager hasn't directly addressed Kinder's former ties to a stripper, which were exposed after she gave a photograph and interview to the Riverfront Times. Kinder had seen the woman at a restaurant last year, and she photographed the two of them together. The woman gave the photograph to the Riverfront Times and, in a later interview, alleged that Kinder had treated her roughly when she worked as a stripper years earlier.
Lager's ads refer to himself as a "family man" and stress "conservative values." Many of the ads feature his children and his wife. In one ad, words appear as flashing neon lights.
Kinder, who is single and has no children, said he made a mistake nearly two decades ago by going to an establishment with exotic dancers.
"I've been humbled by it," he said. "I've moved on. It's in the past."
Meanwhile, some conservative bloggers have questioned whether Lager has benefited from the health care act through his employer, Cerner.
Cerner founder Neal Patterson appeared on the cover of Forbes magazine in May with the heading "Obamacare Billionaires."
Patterson's wife gave Lager's campaign $100,000 in September, and the couple have scheduled a fundraiser for Lager at their home.
Lager said his work for Cerner, which specializes in IT systems for hospitals and health care providers, has shown him the need to create private sector solutions for health care.
"I believe that the solution to the future of our health care is not about bigger government, it's about empowering people," he said.
He also struck back at claims that he works as a lobbyist, denying that lobbying is part of his job.
"The fact that the Kinder organization is directly lying about my role at Cerner is incredibly disappointing and what it really shows me is the level of desperation in what they will do to try to hold onto political power," Lager said.
The company does have lobbyists, but Lager said his job is dealing more directly with Cerner's customers in the private sector, primarily doctors, hospitals and employers.
Also on the Republican ticket are two lesser-known candidates. St. Louis attorney Mike Carter, 40, ran as a Democrat for lieutenant governor four years ago. He has criticized the lieutenant governor's duties of giving out awards and promised to work as a part-time lieutenant governor.
Charles Kullmann, 91, also is running. The World War II veteran is a retired federal worker. His campaign goals are to push for a 5 percent raise for state workers who make below $40,000 a year, paid for through an increase in the state's cigarette tax and money earned from the sale of the old state penitentiary in Jefferson City.
In the crowded Democratic primary, former State Auditor Susan Montee has received the most money in campaign contributions, according to campaign finance reports released last week. She's also the only candidate who has previously won a statewide race -- earning her front-runner status among the pack of eight.
"From my perspective, as long as no one else in the primary is able to raise money and do a real statewide challenge, then I'm better off to put our resources into gearing up for general election," she said.
The race on the Democratic side has been noticeably quieter than the GOP battle, with a few billboards and radio ads.
Montee said she has been focusing on lining up donors who will become more active once the primary is settled, and she has ordered enough yard signs and campaign materials to position herself for the general election.
But with the Democratic vote set to split among so many candidates, others in the race are hoping that even slight differences can help them seize the nomination.
Though she hails from Republican-leaning southwest Missouri, state Rep. Sara Lampe of Springfield has held her seat since 2004. She said she thinks her ability to pull in moderate Republicans puts her in a better position to win a general election.
"Geographically, there is strength for me that the other candidates don't have," she said.
With the Democrats remaining mostly polite to one another, Kinder has become a key target for their primary, as well. Most have noted that they are running because they think he has not been effective in the post.
"I think the position is what you make it," said former state Rep. Judy Baker of Columbia. "It has a lot of potential that has been untapped in the past couple of terms."
In her role as chairwoman of the Missouri Democratic Party, Montee tried to recruit others to run for lieutenant governor before jumping into the race herself. She spent time researching the position.
"We're just not seeing anything there," she said. "It occurred to me that I had the ability to actually make some change in that office."
While Republicans Lager and Kinder have stressed how much they oppose the federal health care overhaul -- particularly the now-optional Medicaid expansion -- the Democrats have been more eager to embrace the idea.
The expansion, if Missouri opts in, will be mostly paid for by the federal government and will expand health care to an estimated 300,000 Missourians.
The state could get $8.4 billion for the expansion between 2014 and 2019, but those who oppose it say Missouri can't afford the $431 million match the state would have to pay.
Lampe, the ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee, said the budget situation could change and so many people will benefit from the expansion that it at least needs to be an option.
"It's very important that we keep that open and not shut them down," she said.
Montee said the GOP's quick reaction to the Supreme Court's health care ruling, which made the expansion optional, was more of a knee-jerk response than thoughtful consideration.
"I think that type of reaction is counterproductive to the best interests of the state," she said.
Baker said people are fatigued with fighting over health care. "I believe we can have higher quality HC and lower costs at the same time," she said. "It is irresponsible to just say we are going backwards and not have a plan to go forward."
Others Democrats running for lieutenant governor:
-- Fred Kratky: A former state representative, Kratky, of St. Louis, has touted himself as a candidate who can work across party lines "within the most polarized political climate in Missouri history." He has advocated tax incentives and job creation initiatives, as well as efforts to promote tourism and property ownership.
-- Becky Plattner: A Grand Pass Democrat with strong agricultural ties, Plattner says on her campaign website that she wants to be an advocate for rural and urban areas of the state.
"The issues of insuring accessible health care, safety in the public arena and care centers, programs to add to the quality of life in later years and to reap benefits of a lifetime of experience, while protecting earned assets are among my primary goals," she said.
-- Bill Haas: A St. Louis School Board member who has run for a variety of offices over the past decade, Haas said he has a plan for reining in the Republican-led Senate that includes calculated ballot petitions.
His first would be an effort to extend animal cruelty to farms. "If I can do well on the ground with the people on one important issue, then I believe that would be a game-changer for the lieutenant governor's office," he said.
Haas entered the lieutenant governor's race after toying with the idea of running for state Senate because he saw it as a balance of the best shot of winning with the opportunity to do the most for the state.
"I thought I could do more good as lieutenant governor," he said.
-- Dennis Weisenburger: A St. Joseph resident, Weisenburger has never held public office. He could not be reached for an interview, but his response to the Post-Dispatch voters andguide says that his priorities would be to help the handicapped, work for veterans, protect and expand care for the aging and improve education.
He also suggested that controlling imports "would level the playing field and give union workers a chance to compete."
-- Jackie Townes McGee: A Hayti attorney, McGee served in the state House from 1987 to 1995. On her campaign website, McGee said she wants to use the lieutenant governor's automatic seat on several boards and commissions to help improve communities and expand job opportunities.
She said the centerpiece of her service would be to improve the lives of children "by increasing funding for juvenile delinquency prevention, teen pregnancy prevention, health literacy education and other prevention education programs that teach children how to make good decisions so that they can have positive outcomes in their lives."
(c)2012 the St. Louis Post-Dispatch