Chris Koster election analysis: Cynicism and good hair win

Cynicism works. Polls are crap. Good hair wins.

These are the lessons to take from the Democratic primary in which a former Republican emerged as the nominee for Missouri attorney general. The winner, state Sen. Chris Koster, captured 784 more votes than Margaret Donnelly, a state rep from suburban St. Louis.

Koster ran a bold campaign. He used the slogan “All Prosecutor, No Politics” — a statement that might have been true once, before Koster quit locking up Cass County criminals in order to taste the pleasures of Jefferson City. Mr. Hundred-Percent Prosecutor’s term was 50 percent unfinished when he ran for the Senate in 2004.

Seeking his third different office in six years, Koster relied on a gimmick to advance. No, that gimmick wasn’t his decision to switch parties after casting a vote, with his fellow Republicans, that cost 25,000 kids their health care. This time, the gimmick was the emergence of a junior-high teacher in the primary.

Brookside resident Molly Williams entered the race in February, months after Koster, Donnelly and state Rep. Jeff Harris had declared their intentions and started raising money. Williams was never a serious candidate. A teacher at St. Elizabeth School, she did not ask for contributions and failed to attend a debate staged less than three miles from her home.

Hopeless causes run for office all the time. But Williams’ marriage to a judge (John B. Williams, Kansas City, Missouri, municipal court) and peekaboo candidacy did not fit the m.o. of a deluded attention seeker. She was a plant. But for whom? Circumstantial evidence pointed to Koster. His campaign made something less than a forceful denial when I presented the accusation (“Who’s That Girl?” April 3).

The gambit worked. Williams cost Donnelly the election. Her name on the ballot presented another option for voters who tend to vote for women, absent other information.

Let’s be honest: All of us cast uneducated votes from time to time. The Koster-Donnelly-Harris contest interested people who follow politics. But a primary race, for a down-ballot state office, with no issues making headlines, will look like just a bunch of names to many voters. A poll conducted in early July found that 23 percent of likely voters were undecided about the Democrats running for attorney general.

God only knows which direction the 23,000 people who voted for Williams would have gone had they known she teaches social studies and is buddies with one of Koster’s mentors. To be sure, Donnelly would have closed the 0.2 percent gap that left her in second place.

The poll that found so many undecideds said Harris had a 10-point lead over his closest rival. He finished a distant third.

The pollster shrugs off the lack of correlation between his poll and the actual result. “To be honest, I’m not concerned, like, ‘Where did we go wrong,'” Delair Ali of Research 2000 tells me.

Research 2000, which is based in Maryland, surveyed 800 likely Missouri voters by telephone. Ali blames the poll’s lack of precision on the relative obscurity of the race and the passage of time. It’s “ludicrous,” he says, to poll a race like an AG primary so far in advance.

So why do it? I asked.

“Because I’m commissioned to do it,” he says.

Research 2000 conducted the poll on behalf of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and a St. Louis TV station.

The media fared poorly in other aspects of the race. Koster won without the endorsement of the Post-Dispatch, The Kansas City Star or the Columbia Daily Tribune. He also survived an Associated Press story describing his campaign’s laundering of oversized campaign donations through murky political-party committees. An outfit called the Economic Growth Council began packing and unpacking contributions for Koster the day after the Missouri Supreme Court reinstituted donor limits.

Donnelly, Harris and Mike Gibbons, the Republican in the AG race, complained about Team Koster’s efforts to the Missouri Ethics Commission. On the day after the election, the commission concluded that nobody had violated the law. Koster called the complaints “a political stunt.” And as we know, political stunts aren’t the Koster way.

Flush with cash, Koster was able to buy a lot of TV time. His ads ads were effective. Borrowing a page from John Edwards, the Koster campaign used black-and-white images of the candidate to imbue his youthful good looks with gravitas.

While Koster had a trim figure and nice teeth working in his favor, he also had to contend with an angry ex-wife.

Koster married Rebecca Bowman in 1996. The seven-year union did not end on good terms. Though she has since remarried and lives in Arizona, Bowman gave $200,000 to a political action committee before last Tuesday’s election. The PAC bought ads attacking Koster’s ethics.

The marriage has always intrigued people who view Koster with suspicion. The wedding brought Koster into a family with money and Republican connections. He received a $585,000 settlement when the couple split.

At the risk of sounding sexist, what kind of man does this? Gainfully employed and with no dependents, Koster somehow escaped the marriage with a half-million-dollar buyout and the furniture from the home in gated Loch Lloyd. For sure, the ex-wife found Koster’s actions to be hideous. I have it on good authority that he didn’t even pay for her wedding ring.

Koster is a Tracy Flick type, hands searching for that next rung on the political ladder. That constant striving is revolting to some. Shellie Rebman, who worked in the Cass County prosecutor’s office in the mid-1990s, sent out an e-mail before last week’s election, describing how Koster spent his days in office “reading several newspapers and discussing his political career.” Susan McNay, a former Koster campaign worker, complained to reporters about her role as bag woman in the donation-packing scheme. “I trusted the candidate, even though I had questions about whether we were doing something that was not right,” McNay told the AP.

Koster, who once voiced support for the constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage in Missouri, is now the candidate all Missouri Dems will be asked to trust. Good luck with that.

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