by J Scott Christianson, Columbia Daily Tribune Columnist

According to the song, the devil went down to Georgia looking for a soul to steal. He challenged Johnny to a fiddling contest and bet his fiddle of gold against Johnny’s soul. But after the devil had done his best, Johnny took up his bow and said, “Sit down in that chair right there and let me show you how it’s done.”

That line rings in my head any time someone mentions the politics of stem cell research in Missouri. As you might recall, a group of folks went to the voters in 2006 with the Amendment 2 referendum to change Missouri’s Constitution to ensure that Missouri’s General Assembly didn’t restrict stem cell research beyond the restrictions imposed by federal laws. Many Missouri Democrats latched onto Amendment 2 as a wedge issue that they could use to divide the Republican Party, candidates and officeholders. After being on the receiving end of many an issue that divided Democratic voters – abortion, gun control, gay rights – Democrats saw their chance and took it.

And, by and large, Amendment 2 was an effective wedge for splitting up the Republicans. Then-Sen. Jim Talent flip-flopped on the issue, and no matter how much he tried to explain his position, it only seemed to make matters worse. Gov. Matt Blunt broke with Missouri Right to Life and supported the amendment. His action caused the president of Missouri Right to Life to declare that Blunt could no longer be trusted as an ally in the group’s cause and that there was “very little chance” that her organization would support a re-election bid by the governor in 2008. In the end, the amendment passed, and Missouri elected more Democrats than it had in a long time.

Now, in the run-up to the 2008 election, here comes the right wing of the Republican Party and Cures Without Cloning with their own stem cell amendment, saying, “Sit down in that chair right there and let me show you how it’s done.” Promising to allow voters to have their cake – no destruction of fertilized eggs – and eat it, too – lifesaving stem cell research – the Cures Without Cloning amendment will not only divide Democratic voters but will provide a great “get-out-the-vote” issue for Missouri’s Republican base. Think about it. Who doesn’t want to have their cake and eat it, too? Only a fool, that’s who!

I can already imagine the political ads and postcards: “Won’t you please call Jay Nixon’s office and ask him why he only favors stem cell research that causes children to be killed? How many more have to die at Nixon’s hand?” It’s going to get ugly fast and stay that way.

The truth about many wedge issues is that some candidates really don’t care one way or the other about the issue at hand. What they care about is whether it will divide the voting blocs up in a way that favors them. Heck, look at all the supposedly right-wing Republicans who have been ousted in some embarrassing sexual episode after running campaigns based on restricting gay rights, increasing the penalty for sexual predators or increasing the punishment for having sex in a public place. To them, these issues are just another tool they can use to slice and dice the demographics until they get the votes they need to win in November.

During the next year, we’ll see lots of politicians jump on the Cures Without Cloning bandwagon, not because they believe in this amendment but because they have done the political calculus and believe it will give them the best shot at getting 51 percent of the vote in the general election.

My prediction is that the Cures Without Cloning amendment will strongly pass and the Republican right wing will use it as an effective wedge issue to help their candidates around the state. When it comes to using an issue as a wedge, Missouri’s right-wingers will show the liberals how it’s done.