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Twilight or a new day for politician Peter Kinder?

The Kansas City Star

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For more than 20 years, three-term Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder has carried the ball for the Missouri Republican Party.

He won in Democratic landslide years. He won in years when every other statewide GOP candidate lost. He pushed conservative abortion and gun legislation in an era when conservatives were on the outs, and he ushered in an era of Republican dominance in the General Assembly.

Not a bad resume.

And yet today, a series of missteps has brought Kinder to the brink, his long political career teetering on the edge of irrelevancy save for the possibility of one more campaign.

That race is next year’s Republican primary for Congress in southeast Missouri. Running would mean challenging Jason Smith, the freshman Republican who aced out Kinder in an intense intraparty scrimmage this year.

For now, Kinder is not ruling out that option.

“Am I getting a lot of encouragement to make that race? You bet I am,” he said in a recent interview.

For Kinder, 59, it may be either Congress or bust, political observers said. Insiders wonder why he’d have any interest in serving out his third consecutive four-year term as the state’s largely powerless second banana.

“It may be that the congressional race is the last option for him,” said George Connor, a political scientist at Missouri State University in Springfield.

These days, Kinder is full of pep, talking about launching an anti-union campaign next year and touting his record of leaving part of his office budget unspent for the last eight years.

“I’m not just talking the talk on that, I’m walking the walk,” he said of his own frugality.

But his political prospects appear to lack that same energy. No longer is Kinder’s name floated on lists of viable statewide candidates, although he still talks about the possibility of running for governor in 2016.

“I think the Republican Party has moved on without him,” said Dave Robertson, a political scientist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

Insiders say the clock is ticking. The lieutenant governor’s got about two months to decide whether to challenge Smith in what would be the state’s marquee 2014 race. Smith is a former state representative who persuaded a majority of the 86 members of the 8th District Republican Committee to nominate him for Congress after longtime incumbent Jo Ann Emerson resigned.

Smith beat out Kinder, former party executive director Lloyd Smith, former state Sen. Jason Crowell and a host of others, then easily won a special election in June.

In 2014, Smith will go before the district’s rank-and-file voters for the first time in what will be a very different kind of election from the intraparty ruckus that nominated him. That gives a candidate such as Cape Girardeau native Kinder, who has strong name identification in the district that’s been his lifelong home, an enticing opportunity.

Republican insiders vacillate. Some say he’ll run. Others say he won’t. But if he runs, he’ll need lots of time to do the fundraising needed to run a competitive race. Hence, the two-month time-table.

“Everybody will be watching Peter Kinder for the next 60 days,” said longtime Missouri GOP consultant Jeff Roe.

Kinder said he’s fully aware of the clock. “Sure I’ll make a decision,” he said. “Of course the timetable is there. I recognize that.”

No cuddles

Kinder is known for his sharp elbows. Warm and cuddly he is not.

He’s battled Democrats, fellow Republicans and even reporters with equal ferocity. As the onetime associate publisher of the Southeast Missourian newspaper, he was known for letting the fur fly in his editorials, once calling feminists “dreadful gasbags” and comparing the tactics of Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork’s critics to those used by Nazi figure Joseph Goebbels.

Once Kinder arrived in the state Senate in 1993, he started placing a conservative imprint on an institution that had been in Democratic hands for decades. He worked to override a veto of Missouri’s first ban on partial-birth abortions. He helped bring concealed weapons to the state. He was for school choice before it was cool to be for school choice, Roe said.

“He’s probably the most articulate conservative we have in Missouri,” Roe said. “He’s not a talking-point candidate. His depth of knowledge on the issues is unparalleled.”

In 2001, when Republicans captured the state Senate for the first time in 53 years, it was Kinder, as president pro tem, who fielded a congratulatory call from President George W. Bush.

In the years since, the GOP has only expanded its majority.

He won the lieutenant governor post in 2004, then became the only Republican to win statewide office in the big Democratic years of 2008 and 2012.

But by 2012, Kinder’s glow had begun to fade.

In 2008, Kinder was the first to enter the race for governor after Republican Gov. Matt Blunt shocked the state in January by announcing he wouldn’t seek re-election. But just weeks later, Kinder dropped out, citing a need for party unity after two other candidates, Kenny Hulshof and Sarah Steelman, also announced their plans to run.

By 2011, he was the early favorite for the GOP nod for governor the following year. But he abandoned the race again after a torrent of news stories about his taxpayer-funded hotel stays and his ties to a onetime Penthouse Pet. His new plan, Kinder said that day, was to seek re-election.

But Kinder had suffered serious damage in the runup to that announcement. One prominent GOP donor and longtime Kinder backer, David Humphreys, withdrew his backing after the stories about his ties to former Pet Tammy Chapman.

“If I had known this about him, I would not have supported him in the past,” Humphreys said.

A feeling has grown from that time that Kinder has missed his chance to ever hold the state’s highest office.

Even 2012’s re-election race was a struggle. Kinder was challenged by fellow Republican Brad Lager in a brutal primary that Kinder eked out by less than three points. He hung on to defeat Democrat Susan Montee in the general election.

This year, Kinder backed the losing candidate for state party leader, then rushed into the race for the 8th District congressional seat just weeks after his re-election and following Emerson’s announcement that she was resigning.

He wooed delegates by saying he’d always been a team player. “Numerous times, I have put our party above personal ambition,” Kinder wrote to 8th District committee members.

Kinder was favored, but Smith won the nomination on the sixth ballot with 55 votes to Kinder’s 22.

Since then, the political vultures have circled, with one Republican likening him to a star athlete with a torn ACL. Kinder is seen only occasionally around the statehouse these days.

“At some point, it would be time to move on from lieutenant governor,” said former state Sen. Mike Gibbons, himself a former president pro tem. “People underestimate him at their own peril.”

Retiring as one of only two Missourians to ever serve three terms as lieutenant governor is his destiny unless, of course, he decides to run one more race for Congress against an incumbent from his own party. No one seems to know whether he’ll take that shot or not.

Even Kinder may not know, though he’s quick to point out that in six races, voters have never rejected him at the ballot box.

“I’m a competitor, and my record shows it,” he said. “I don’t fear any other competitor on the field. I’ll let other people bet against somebody who is 6-0.”

To reach Steve Kraske, call 816-234-4312 or send email to skraske@kcstar.com.

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