JEFFERSON CITY — When Democrat Jay Nixon officially assumes the Missouri governorship Jan. 12, only one Republican elected to statewide office will remain, making Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder the titular head of the party in Jefferson City.
As the lone Republican in Missouri's executive branch and as president of the Missouri Senate, Kinder has offered to play a role in bridging the gap between a Democratic-controlled administration and a Republican-controlled legislature.
Exactly what role Kinder will play, though, remains to be seen.
The lieutenant governor-elect said following his Nov. 4 electoral victory: "I am offering Jay Nixon my assistance in the new administration."
On election night, Kinder was more direct about his idea.
"He (Nixon) will need help governing this state with a majority of the other party controlling both the House and Senate," Kinder said. "I will work with him, if he is willing to work with me."
Since then, Kinder has declined comment on what role he might play between the two branches of government.
Kinder's director of communications, Gary McElyea, described Kinder as a "liaison" between the state's executive and legislative branches.
"He's the only statewide official that is actively involved in both branches (of state government)," McElyea said.
The outgoing Senate president pro tem, Mike Gibbons, summarized Kinder's power in the Senate as twofold. Kinder has the ultimate right to preside over Missouri's upper chamber and, in the case of a split vote, he would cast the tie-breaking vote, Gibbons said.
But Kinder's legislative duties are often little more than acting as a "glorified traffic cop," Gibbons said. "We're content to let him be lieutenant governor, and he's content to let the Missouri Senate take care of its challenges. ... Peter's very respectful of the Senate's prerogative to run itself."
Indeed, Senate rules delegate most procedural authority to the president pro tem, another legislator, rather than the president.
Gibbons said the real issue "isn't so much as a bridge between the Senate and the executive. The real issue that we've seen in Missouri is, 'What's the relationship going to be between the lieutenant governor and the governor?'"
Gibbons noted that with Kinder serving as second-in-command for the past four years, Republican Gov. Matt Blunt was comfortable leaving the state and "passing the baton" to the lieutenant governor, whereas the relationship between Kinder and Nixon has not always been so amicable.
"That's going to be the interesting relationship to see how it plays out, and I don't really know how that's going to be. That's something that Peter and Jay Nixon are going to have to answer," Gibbons said.
Along with filling in as the state's chief executive upon the death, conviction, impeachment, resignation, absence from the state or disability of the governor, the lieutenant governor is also the official advocate for the elderly in the state. He sits on various boards and commissions, including the Missouri Development Finance Board, the Missouri Rural Economic Development Council and the state Tourism Commission.
"Although his powers are fairly limited in the legislative branch, he's given an expanded role in the executive branch behind the scenes in pushing forward legislation," McElyea said.
In the Senate, Republicans will enjoy a commanding majority, with 23 seats to 11. That's enough to override any veto by the governor; in the House, Republicans lack the majority needed to override a veto.
Incoming Senate Democratic Leader Victor Callahan said the role of all elected officials — not just Peter Kinder — is to find solutions to certain problems in the state.
"Given the seriousness of the economic environment, I don't think the voters are going to have a lot of patience for partisan tag," Callahan said. "I think it's natural to have legitimate, genuine differences ... but at the end of the day, I think Missourians want real solutions.
"Peter has a tremendous skill set, and he'll be a tremendous part of that process. He will be influential in coming up with common sense answers for how we solve the problems we face."
Gibbons said that given a slumping economy, he anticipates a higher level of cooperation among state leaders than what might typically exist.
"To the extent that (Gov.-elect Jay Nixon) is interested in growth and job creation to help pull us out of this challenging time, he's going to find a lot of friends on the Republican side of the legislature, and I think that Lt. Gov. Kinder very well may have some involvement with that," he said.