After taking leadership of the Missouri Republican Party last weekend, conservative firebrand and perennial candidate Ed Martin offered words to his supporters that could pretty much sum up his entire approach to politics.
“We are surrounded, but as the great Marine Chesty Puller noted, being surrounded simplifies the situation. We can advance in any direction,” Martin wrote — in typically militant language — in a letter to supporters Tuesday. “Mount up.”
Martin might seem a strange choice to lead a state party that recently lost the most winnable Senate race in the country because the voters deemed its nominee too far right.
Martin is, after all, from the same cultural conservative, anti-establishment, Tea Party wing of the Missouri GOP as former Senate candidate Todd Akin. And Martin lost his own race in November, for Missouri attorney general, by a similarly wide margin as Akin.
Despite that backdrop, and other baggage from his often-tumultuous career in and around Missouri politics, Martin on Saturday narrowly won a vote of the Missouri Republican State Committee to unseat Missouri Republican Party Chairman David Cole.
The news stunned many in Missouri politics. Some say Martin’s aggressive, sometimes abrasive brand of conservatism — along with two high-profile campaign failures of his own — make him an unlikely leader of a party that lately has had problems both with keeping the peace internally and winning statewide elections.
“He is controversial within the party. ... He’s made a lot of enemies,” said Ken Warren, a political scientist at St. Louis University with Democratic Party ties. “I’m very surprised that the Republican Party would pick someone to chair the party who is so divisive.”
If so, those Republicans for the most part aren’t breaking ranks, despite the narrow 34-32 Republican committee vote.
Among Cole’s supporters was U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo. Asked about Martin’s victory, Blunt on Tuesday issued a one-sentence written statement: “I congratulate Ed and look forward to working with him.”
Martin himself is heralding his ascension as a regrouping of the conservative movement in Missouri after what he acknowledges was “a rough election.”
“This (election as party chairman) has less to do with my own merit and more to the fact that the grass roots are charting a course to reignite the beacon of hope and liberty that America is,” Martin, 42, said in Tuesday’s statement. “I cannot tell you how encouraged I am by the direction in which our friends and colleagues are steering our state party.”
That direction, many predict, is to the right.
“It shows the strength of the Tea Party and conservative wing of the party,” Dave Robertson, political scientist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, said of Martin’s ascension. “There’s a lot of energy on the conservative side of the party — a real grass-roots enthusiasm.”
But, Robertson added, “It also raises real, real serious questions about whether the candidates they produce will be successful.”
That was the double-edged sword that conservatives found themselves holding last year when they boosted Akin past two better-funded GOP establishment candidates to win the Senate nomination against U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., then considered the most vulnerable senator in the nation.
While Akin’s religiously infused conservatism and no-exceptions opposition to abortion sat well with his supporters, it cut the other way after Akin’s comments in August about “legitimate rape” and pregnancy. The comments — rooted in an old anti-abortion movement myth that rape cannot cause pregnancy — created a national firestorm and, by most accounts, cost Akin the election.
That’s not Martin’s account, however. In an interview Tuesday, he argued that the lesson from Akin’s loss wasn’t that he was too conservative but that he was underfunded.
“What we know in retrospect ... is that the Republican Party was outspent by $20 million,” Martin said. He acknowledged that the reason Akin couldn’t raise as much money as McCaskill was “partly from what happened” with the rape comments.
Martin’s tenure in Missouri politics has often been controversial. A former commercial lawyer, he was former Republican Gov. Matt Blunt’s chief of staff in 2007 when he fired Scott Eckersley, a lawyer under him, after Eckersley warned that the administration was improperly destroying email records.
Eckersley alleged his firing was retaliation over his warning, and he sued. The suit was ultimately settled for $500,000. In addition, the state paid almost $2 million to defend the case.
Martin, who also has been chairman of the St. Louis Board of Election Commissioners, in 2010 challenged U.S. Rep. Russ Carnahan, D-St. Louis, losing narrowly. Last year, Martin started to campaign for the GOP nomination to challenge McCaskill, then dropped out of the race to run for the 2nd Congressional District seat.
He later dropped out of that race to run for the attorney general’s office, winning the August primary to challenge Attorney General Chris Koster, a Democrat. Martin ended up losing that race by 15 percentage points.
Martin argued Tuesday that his lack of electoral victories doesn’t mean he won’t be effective in guiding other Republicans to victory. “People are rushing to attack me ... , (but) Ed Martin is not the Republican Party,” he said.
He said his focus will be on finding “common ground” among Republican candidates and focusing their campaigns on issues of leadership.
“I’m doing a lot of listening,” Martin said. “People are looking up and they’re seeing dysfunctional government. Where are the leaders?”