A wedge issue that helps Democrats

Stem cell research is dividing Missouri's GOP. Will the split be wide enough to win Claire McCaskill a Senate seat?

Published July 17, 2006 1:40PM (EDT)

Since 1985, when U.S. Sen. Jim Talent began his legislative career in the Missouri General Assembly, Al Watkins has supported the politician full-bore with his checkbook and his vote. Now Talent, first elected to the Senate in 2002, faces Democrat Claire McCaskill, the state auditor, in one of the nation's most contested and closely watched U.S. Senate races. And after 20 years, Watkins plans to abandon the GOP ticket.

"Talent has even done me a few favors this year," notes Watkins, a prominent trial attorney from the wealthy St. Louis suburb of Ladue. "But I switched my support to McCaskill about two months ago." To be exact, Watkins turned coat on May 1, the day Talent announced his opposition to a state ballot initiative that would protect certain forms of stem cell research.

As the Republican Party continues to court its fundamentalist base, educated moderates see less and less room for themselves under the GOP tent. Faith-based Republican hostility to science and medical research --including everything from the Terri Schiavo debacle to the denial of global warming to local school board fights over teaching evolution -- is one of the reasons the suburbs of Northeastern cities like Philadelphia and Washington are turning bluer. Now the so-called war on science has even alienated longtime Republicans in the heartland. Polls show two-to-one support for the stem cell initiative in Missouri. Talent's opposition to the initiative is especially problematic in the more upscale precincts of St. Louis, home to a medical research industry centered on the prestigious Washington University School of Medicine. In a state known for close elections, will stem cells peel off enough votes to cost Talent his job?

Stem cell research enjoys broad support because so many people know someone who would benefit from it. Often, as in Watkins' case, the issue is even more personal. Just days after doctors diagnosed the 46-year-old with tonsil cancer three years ago this month, the lawyer went under the knife for an 11-hour neck dissection. His tonsils and cancerous cells in his lymph nodes were removed. Spared from losing his voice -- any trial attorney's primary asset -- Watkins still had to log a year of chemotherapy and radiation before finally kicking the cancer for good.

"Stem cells provide a very exciting prospect for permitting treatment of cancers that totally preclude the need for this type of invasive and highly potentially unsuccessful surgery," he argues. "I don't consider myself a one-issue guy, but if you cannot come to grips with the fact that we have an ethical duty to pursue stem cell research, it's in my good faith to realize that you'll fall short on a number of other really salient issues."

In Missouri, Talent's stance also puts him at odds with the old GOP establishment. The group behind the pro-research initiative, the Missouri Coalition for Lifesaving Cures, is the brainchild of Bush "Pioneer" and billionaire investor Sam Fox. John Danforth, a former Republican senator and current Episcopal minister, has been appearing in coalition-sponsored TV ads since May. The coalition's $10 million-strong coffers are filled with GOP dollars. Donors include prominent Kansas City Republicans Jim and Virginia Stowers ($6.3 million) and William Danforth, a physician, ex-chancellor of Washington University and John's brother ($150,000), and John Bachmann, past chairman of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the senior partner of St. Louis-based brokerage Edward Jones ($10,000). Other prominent Republicans have contributed to two PACs that support the ballot initiative.

The boardroom Republicans are well aware that the stakes are especially high for business interests in St. Louis. The city has been trying to establish a bio belt, known as Cortex, along its central corridor. One of Cortex's selling points is the opportunity for private enterprise to collaborate with researchers at the adjacent Washington University med school, ranked fourth in the country for research by U.S. News & World Report.

Talent hasn't helped himself by flip-flopping. Earlier this year the senator rescinded his co-sponsorship of a federal bill that would prohibit human cloning, infuriating his core conservative constituency in rural Missouri. His latest stance, against the ballot initiative, puts him back in step with the antiabortion base and out of step with many of his neighbors in the western suburbs of St. Louis.

Democrats see their opportunity, which is why Senate candidate Claire McCaskill was chosen to deliver the party's national radio address this past Saturday. She gave a speech about stem cells, and has been on the record supporting the ballot initiative since January.

But will taking the popular position translate into victory for McCaskill? Preliminary fundraising numbers show some early defections. For example, the Stowers, founders of the brokerage house American Century Investments -- and cancer survivors -- have broken ranks. Having contributed to the coalition, the Stowers have now each given $4,200 to McCaskill's campaign and $10,000 apiece to the Missouri Democratic Party for the quarter ending June 30. The couple declined to be interviewed. Talent still has money on his side, with $2.22 million raised for the quarter ending June 30, compared with McCaskill's $1.45 million. Overall, Talent has $7.12 million cash on hand; McCaskill, $2.78 million.

Polling numbers are unclear, meanwhile. "We're certainly finding that a number of new people from the Republican side have joined us because of this issue," says McCaskill campaign spokeswoman Adrianne Marsh. "But there's no way to quantitatively analyze how many people  would fit the profile."

Watkins ranks among the 10 percent of Republicans who would vote for McCaskill today, according to a June poll conducted by Del Ali of Maryland-based Research 2000 for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Ali's poll of 800 likely voters shows the two candidates neck and neck, with 49 percent supporting McCaskill and 43 percent siding with Talent. McCaskill has risen in the polls since January. But most independent analysts attribute her improvement to anti-Bush sentiment rubbing off on Talent: Bush's approval ratings in Missouri dropped from 47 percent in January to 41 percent in June, according to Ali's poll.

Rich Chrismer, Talent's spokesman, would not comment on any political fallout to his candidate because of the senator's stance on the stem cell ballot initiative. In an e-mail, Chrismer says: "Sen. Talent has thoughtfully examined this issue and he has encouraged Missourians to study the state ballot initiative carefully and make up their own minds. We believe that when Missourians compare Sen. Talent's record with his opponent's, they will determine he is the only candidate in the Senate race who shares Missouri's common sense, conservative values."

But within the party itself, polls show almost as many Republicans in favor of the amendment as opposed. Ali's numbers have 40 percent backing the initiative, 58 percent opposed. Last December, a survey by Republican pollster Fred Steeper found a majority of Republicans, 53 percent, in favor of the proposal, with 45 percent opposed.

Steeper's sample included an electorate that was far more conservative-leaning (58 percent) than liberal-leaning (33 percent), and more "strong pro-life" (37 percent) than "strong pro-choice" (24 percent). But the poll was commissioned by and conducted for the Missouri Coalition for Lifesaving Cures.

Ken Warren, a Democratic pollster and professor of political science at Saint Louis University, nonetheless doubts that entrenched Republicans like the Danforths will end up punching McCaskill's card -- despite their alignment on the stem cell issue. It could still, however, end up helping her. "Frequently you hear people saying, 'I'm so upset with Jim Talent that I just can't vote for him,'" Warren explains. "So they don't vote at all in that race."

That's likely to be true for Ira Gall, an esteemed obstetrician and the co-founder of Medicine Shoppe International, who recently gave $25,000 to the pro-initiative PAC known as Supporters of Health Research and Treatments. The Creve Coeur, Mo., resident plans to vote yes on the ballot initiative but abstain in the Senate race. "I'm sure somewhere down the line there are people who will vote for McCaskill because she is in favor of this initiative, and I respect that," Gall says, "but I'm a Republican at heart."

By Kristen Hinman

Kristen Hinman is a staff writer at the Riverfront Times in St. Louis. She covers politics and education.

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