COLUMBIA, Mo. — If you’d told the state’s leading Republican thinkers just six years ago that a Columbia-area Republican senator was their best chance of seizing the Attorney General’s office, you probably would have been laughed out of the room.
In 2008, Kurt Schaefer stunned political observers around Missouri with a narrow victory over incumbent Democratic Senator Chuck Graham. Schaefer won the 19th senatorial district by about 1,500 votes in an election with more than 90,000 ballots cast.
Four years later, Democrats were confident that the seat could be recaptured. They dispatched Mary Still, a state representative at the time whose resume included work for a Democratic governor and Attorney General. Schaefer, a bespectacled litigator with a piercing voice and sober disposition, seemed like an easy target.
But Schaefer’s work ethic and generous contributions, along with a well-staffed campaign, allowed him to cruise to an easy victory. Out of 81,000 votes cast, Schaefer won by a breezy 13,000.
By the time his re-election came in 2012, Schaefer had ascended to Chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, a slot that comes with plenty of big money donors and more than a little legislative clout.
Schaefer’s background as a litigator is dizzying in length. In about two decades, Schaefer served as Assistant Missouri Attorney General, Special Assistant U.S. Attorney, General Counsel and Deputy Director of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, Special Counsel to the Governor and Special Counsel to the Missouri Department of Agriculture. Currently, he’s a partner at Lathrope and Gage in Columbia.
With a resume like that, it wasn’t long before his colleagues assumed Schaefer would consider a bid for attorney general in 2016.
Robert Knodell, a partner at Barklage & Knodell, said Schaefer’s back-to-back wins in presidential years in Boone county speak directly to his electability.
“The one thing I think about is that he’s a proven winner,” Knodell said. “He’s won that district, which was very competitive, and he won it in presidential years. People forget that in 2008 he won and it was on the heels of Obama’s visit to Columbia. But he still won.”
As a senator, Schaefer seemed to revel in playing the part of thorn in the side of Gov. Jay Nixon. In 2013, Schaefer spearheaded an investigation into Nixon’s Department of Revenue for releasing information on CCW permits to the federal government without appropriate authorization.
In an odd moment of symmetry, Schaefer became the first state lawmaker since Nixon himself in 1991 to subpoena witnesses to appear before a special committee. Schaefer’s role as a permanent pain for Nixon grew in recent days.
Last Friday, Nixon announced he’d be calling a special session for lawmakers to appropriate more funds to pay the bills for the National Guard actions in Ferguson. Three days later, Schaefer sent out an email to his colleagues which he made available to Nixon in which he laid out the case that, in fact, there was no need for such a session, and there were more than enough funds available.
Hours later, Nixon sent out a release “agreeing with an alternative interpretation of current appropriation authority offered by legislative leadership.” Schaefer had won the day.
“Being a former prosecutor, I’ve always had a focus on law enforcement,” Schaefer said of his legislative work. “And I’ve also been as open as I can be with my colleagues about my desires or my intentions about the future.”
Schaefer plans on leaning heavily on his experience to win over Missouri voters. He wastes no time in reminding people that he’s brief and argued appeals cases about 100 times, he’s argued before the Supreme Court, and worked in the AG’s office previously.
“There’s not a single job in [the AG’s office] that I couldn’t walk in and do myself as a litigator for 20 years,” Schaefer said.
Knodell said that Schaefer’s resume was hard to beat for members of either party, and that his deep background as a litigator could win him the day in a general election.
“I think in Attorney General races around the country we’re seeing people want an Attorney General who is conservative and will stand up to the overreach in the federal government.
Most were expecting Schaefer to collide with former House Speaker Tim Jones, who dropped strong hints he was eyeing his own bid for AG. Jones, widely considered a formidable Republican primary candidate, announced rather suddenly just weeks ago that he would not be seeking any statewide office in 2016.Jones’ exit from the race all but clears the field for Schaefer, whose time as a senator is increasingly looking like an audition for the state’s top attorney job. After hammering Nixon on the unauthorized CCW release, Schaefer wasted no time attacking the EPA for what he calls “obvious overreach,” before slamming the Democratic governor for his “illegal” budget withholds.
From his powerful post in Appropriations, Schaefer has made it clear he has no desire to entertain a bill expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. Schaefer’s resistance is absolute, despite the fact that his own vice chair, Sen. Ryan Silvey, R-Kansas City, is a supporter of expansion.
“[Medicaid expansion] is substantially less likely since even last year,” Schaefer said. “The unifying message from [the election] was that we need to find another way to address healthcare in the U.S. because obviously Obamacare isn’t working. It’s a quagmire that needs to be addressed, and we hopefully have senators and congresspeople smart enough to address those issues and not simply make a mass expansion of welfare.”
With more than $1 million in the bank, a powerful Appropriations chairmanship and one of the state’s deepest resumes as a litigator, Schaefer’s run for attorney general is more and more likely going to face it’s most significant speed bump in the general election, not the primary.
“I think he’s done everything you could realistically expect him to do to clear the field,” said Rep. Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia. “He’s a very hard working guy and that’s something people pick up on quickly, and with the funds he’s been able to put together, he’s done a very good job.”
The only Democrat who has already declared his AG intentions is Sen. Scott Sifton, a colleague of Schaefer’s in the Senate. Sifton is not without experience, he’s an attorney in St. Louis with the powerhouse Husch Blackwell law firm. While Sifton and Schaefer are not immediately prone to the ugliness voters have come to expect from a statewide campaign, neither man is unwilling to throw mud if it becomes necessary.
Schaefer, on the heels of his public schooling of Nixon on budget rules, will now stride into January a leading candidate for one of the state’s most powerful posts and a growing bank account. In six years, Schaefer has gone from long shot to frontrunner.
Collin Reischman is the Managing Editor for The Missouri Times, and a graduate of Webster University with a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism. To contact Collin, email firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter at @CMReischman