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Missouri Democrats Use Stem Cell Research as Key Issue in Elections

August 30, 2006 at 6:20 PM EDT
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KWAME HOLMAN: For more than 50 years, every major politician in Missouri has come here, to the Governor’s Ham Breakfast at the Summer State Fair. And in a critical election year like this one, it’s a must-do for incumbents and their challengers.

One of those challengers is Democratic Senate candidate Claire McCaskill. She’s hoping to convince some of the rural voters here in Republican-heavy southwestern Missouri to help send her to Washington in November.

Two months before Election Day, McCaskill is in a dead heat with incumbent Republican Senator Jim Talent. Like others in his party seeking re-election this year, Talent is burdened by President Bush’s low approval ratings, the Iraq war, and polls that show an increasingly anti-incumbent public.

CHERYL SIMMONS, Missouri Citizen: Time for a change, time for a new one. Let’s see some stuff happening. Quit talking about what we’re going to do and let’s actually do it.

A contentious debate

Chuck Graham
Democratic State Senator
Politically, anytime that you can get the other side divided in a way that I think we have them divided on this issue, I think that that gives us opportunity.

KWAME HOLMAN: But Talent's fate this November could turn on another issue: stem cell research. Amendment Number 2, on the state ballot, would allow Missouri's stem cell researchers to conduct any research permitted under federal law without any interference from the state legislature. In May, Talent announced he opposed the amendment.

SEN. JIM TALENT (R), Missouri: I decided that I was going to look at this thing, and make the decision that I thought was right, and let the politics and the chips fall where they may.

KWAME HOLMAN: Talent equates stem cell research to human cloning and many in his religiously conservative, anti-abortion base of supporters agree. Among those attending the state fair in Sedalia was Meg Liston, who said the senator made the right decision.

MEG LISTON, Missouri Citizen: Senator Talent has always been pro-life, you know, and so I felt secure in just his personal faith and beliefs that, you know, he would do what he personally felt, you know, was right in the initiative.

KWAME HOLMAN: But the stem cell issue has split the party. The Republican governor and leaders of the business community say they support Amendment 2, in part because passage could re-assure top researchers leery of coming to Missouri and generate a bio-tech boom in the state's urban centers, boosting the overall economy.

Kansas City restaurant owner Jim Chappell.

JIM CHAPPELL, Chappell's Restaurant: I think anything that generates the economy as a whole, which I think stem cell research will, and especially in Kansas City, is I think it's good for my restaurant, it's good for business, so there's another reason I'm for it.

CLAIRE MCCASKILL (D), Candidate for Senate: How are you?

MISSOURI CITIZEN: Good.

CLAIRE MCCASKILL: Good to see you.

KWAME HOLMAN: Challenger Claire McCaskill and a majority of Democrats also support Amendment 2 and are eagerly playing up the fracture within the Republican Party.

Democratic State Senator Chuck Graham.

STATE SEN. CHUCK GRAHAM (D), Missouri: Politically, anytime that you can get the other side divided in a way that I think we have them divided on this issue, I think that that gives us opportunity.

Holding on to support

John Danforth
Former Senator, R - Missouri
My entire political career, I voted pro-life, and that is exactly why I favor the stem cell initiative. I believe in saving human life.

KWAME HOLMAN: But members of Missouri's politically powerful anti-abortion community also see opportunity. They've linked up with several of the state's largest church organizations to try to deliver a massive get-out-the-vote effort against Amendment 2 and for Jim Talent.

Pam Fichter is president of Missouri Right to Life.

PAM FICHTER, Missouri Right to Life: This is a very galvanizing issue in Missouri. And we find that, as people become educated on the truth of this amendment and on the truth of this issue, that they take a solidly pro-life position on it. And we expect that these people are going to turn out to vote.

KWAME HOLMAN: But polls show Missourians favor the amendment two to one, and the organized forces actively backing it are formidable. Several prominent anti-abortion Republicans, including former Senator John Danforth, are part of a group expected to spend $20 million to assure its passage.

JOHN DANFORTH (R), Former Senator, Missouri: My entire political career, I voted pro-life, and that is exactly why I favor the stem cell initiative. I believe in saving human life.

KWAME HOLMAN: Danforth, too, has warned that the amendment's defeat could undermine Missouri's efforts to expand its biomedical industry.

PAM FICHTER: It's certainly disappointing when people that we hoped would be with us aren't.

KWAME HOLMAN: Pam Fichter accuses Danforth and other pro-amendment Republicans of sacrificing their moral principles for economic interests.

PAM FICHTER: Missouri does not want to build its economy on manipulating human life, on destroying human life.

KWAME HOLMAN: Democratic operative Roy Temple said Talent's decision to join Pam Fichter and her allies in opposing Amendment 2 shows how concerned he is about losing the right wing of his party in November.

ROY TEMPLE, Democratic Consultant: The fact of the matter is that a governor, who I view as rather conservative, and a former Republican senator, in Jack Danforth, have come to the reasonable conclusion that stem cell research is something that Missourians should benefit from.

And you have Jim Talent who is so eager to please a very narrow constituency in a pursuit of his re-election that he is pandering to them. I think it's a demonstration of where he is and how far out of the mainstream he is in that regard.

Online and monetary backing

Jeff Roe
Republican Consultant
In Missouri, there are actually operatives, and there are people that are connected enough in the business to get real stories, to understand what's happening behind the scenes.

KWAME HOLMAN: Temple also shares his views online. His political blog, "Fired Up Missouri," is a popular Web destination for Missouri's political class. According to Temple, his early postings played a role in the stem cell debate, after getting noticed by members of the press.

ROY TEMPLE: I think it helped shape the story, not because they were responding to me, but they were responding to information that they had not previously had access to or wouldn't have necessarily noticed previously.

JEFF ROE, Republican Consultant: They really can cause a movement. My blog gets 5,000 hits a day.

KWAME HOLMAN: Republican operative Jeff Roe is Roy Temple's online rival of sorts. He runs "The Source," which promotes GOP news and views and singles out Democratic failings. Roe says he and Temple aren't typical bloggers.

JEFF ROE: In other states, it's more of the 18-year-old college Republican, or college Democrat, or the Howard Dean fan, or the 50-year-old in his basement with his bottle of vodka next to his computer, ranting and raving.

In Missouri, there are actually operatives, and there are people that are connected enough in the business to get real stories, to understand what's happening behind the scenes. And, to his credit and my credit, we are able to develop stories that the news media pays attention to.

KWAME HOLMAN: And there has been plenty of attention paid to this Missouri race. With Republican control of the Senate on the line, big money is flowing into both campaigns. The Democratic National Committee gave McCaskill nearly $600,000 in July alone. Still, she lags far behind Talent in fundraising, due in part to several visits from President Bush.

CLAIRE MCCASKILL: He's here raising money so frequently for Senator Talent, and that's hard. They can just turn on the spigot and it flows.

Bringing out the voters

Roy Temple
Democratic Consultant
I think it will be a strong motivator for people who might not otherwise have bothered to go out, but will, given the chance to vote on this initiative.

KWAME HOLMAN: Knowing she can do only so well among mostly Republican rural voters such as those at the state fair, McCaskill also is mining the vote-rich suburbs outside Kansas City and St. Louis.

CLAIRE MCCASKILL: I've particularly seen a lot of suburban women who feel very strongly about the stem cell issue, and that's a really important place for us to do well.

KWAME HOLMAN: One of those women is Sandy Skaggs, a lifelong Democrat of north Kansas City. She plans to vote for McCaskill.

SANDY SKAGGS, Missouri Citizen: I am in favor of stem cell research. I'm also a Christian. I'm a Southern Baptist. And I believe that people of faith need to -- I think we need to realize that God gave us intelligence and wisdom and a brain. And if that can be used in the field of research, I mean, with stem cells or other legitimate research, that it should be used because I think we need to see that as the gift of God.

KWAME HOLMAN: But among the Jim Talent supporters enjoying barbeque and bluegrass in nearby Parkville, Claire McCaskill's support for Amendment 2 was one of the chief reasons not to vote for her, according to Hannah Phillips.

HANNAH PHILLIPS, Missouri Citizen: I have strong religious beliefs, and I don't understand how you could be a follower of the bible and believe that, you know, creating life to destroy life is right or that abortion is right. I don't. I've never understood that.

KWAME HOLMAN: Republican operative Jeff Roe said those opposed to stem cell research may be outnumbered but they're far more energized. Good news, he says, for Jim Talent.

JEFF ROE: The intensity is really on the side of the folks that are trying to defeat that amendment. That is where the passion is; that is where the intensity is. Those are the people that will vote against a candidate because of their position.

KWAME HOLMAN: But Roy Temple says the stem cell issue is more likely to get Democrats to the polls.

ROY TEMPLE: I think it will be a strong motivator for people who might not otherwise have bothered to go out, but will, given the chance to vote on this initiative. And while they're there, they'll just go ahead and happen to vote for Claire McCaskill while they're at it.

KWAME HOLMAN: Jim Talent said he hoped one issue would not determine his fate in November.

SEN. JIM TALENT: I don't think a position on any single issue generally makes you or breaks you in politics, but I say that without regard to any voter's desire to weigh any issue the way they want, because they're the boss and they can do that.

KWAME HOLMAN: With the race expected to go down to the wire, both candidates will have a sharp eye on independent voters, a third of Missouri's electorate. How motivated they are by the stem cell initiative could decide who wins in November.