On the Trail: 10 big questions about Missouri's wild primary election
SOMEWHERE IN AMERICA – You could say that Missouri’s 2016 primary cycle was a bit unwieldy.
This election has everything: An unpredictable and incredibly expensive governor’s race, statewide contests that turned thermonuclear nasty, and high-stakes legislative contests. For St. Louis voters, there’s a critical four-way race for circuit attorney and even a scramble for sheriff.
Soon, the costly build-up to Aug. 2 will come to an end when Missourians choose their primary preferences. So as this reporter is literally in the air flying back from Philadelphia, here’s some big questions that I’ll be watching as the votes get counted.
Do Missourians prefer insiders or outsiders in statewide contests?
Voters will decide in November between somebody with lots of political experience (Hillary Clinton) and a person with none (Donald Trump). And that insider versus outsider dichotomy is playing out in pretty much every statewide contest:
The most obvious example is the four-way GOP gubernatorial primary, where two “outsiders” (Eric Greitens and John Brunner) are running against two political “insiders” (Catherine Hanaway and Peter Kinder). There are similar matchups in Republican primaries for attorney general and secretary of state, as well as the Democratic treasurer primary.
In all of those races, the insiders and outsiders have decent amounts of money and organizational manpower to be viable. So it will be worth watching to see whether Missourians want political neophytes or members of the old guard to run statewide offices.
Does money matter in the race for governor?
The four GOP candidates for governor received an enormous and unprecedented amount of money over the last year or so. And pretty much all the candidates’ financial largess was either through self-funding or big individual donors.
Even though he received a relatively late financial infusion from the Humphreys family, Kinder still ended up being outspent by his three rivals. But many have assumed that he didn’t need as much cash since his name recognition is high from his three statewide wins.
If Kinder pulls it out on Tuesday, it could show that a candidate needs the right amount of money to win a primary – not the most.
Did third-party ads make a difference?
Third-party groups made a big splash in the races for governor, attorney general and St. Louis circuit attorney. The mysteriously-funded LG PAC ended up attacking Brunner and Hanaway (and, eventually, praising Greitens), while the Democratic Governors Association recently announced a big ad buy to knock Greitens down a peg. A group that George Soros recently funded is spending a lot of money on behalf of state Rep. Kim Gardner’s circuit attorney bid.
This third-party ad blitz took on a whole other level in the attorney general’s race. That’s were several third-party groups apparently spent a lot of money to attack state Sen. Kurt Schaefer. Asian-American groups decried one ad lambasting Schaefer’s vote on a foreign ownership of farmland bill as racist and xenophobic. (They also condemned some of Schaefer's ads for tapping into anti-Muslim sentiment throughout the country.)
Usually, a big third-party ad buy can make a difference in a close race. But since the statewide candidates themselves are spending huge sums for ads, it’s a question whether this strategy is effective. If any of the attacked candidates prevail, it could provide some doubt about whether these outside groups really matter that much.
Are big names enough to win big primaries?
After they faced tough losses, Russ Carnahan and Jay Ashcroft are trying to bounce back by running for statewide office.
Both of those candidates’ fathers (Mel Carnahan and John Ashcroft) held some of Missouri’s highest statewide offices. So it will be worth watching to see whether Carnahan (who has a substantial fundraising advantage) can outpace two Democratic rivals and whether Ashcroft can beat a better-funded state Sen. Will Kraus, R-Lee’s Summit.
The family connection effect is also being put to the test in the Democratic primary for 78th House District. That’s where state Rep. Penny Hubbard, D-St. Louis, is facing a vigorous challenge from Bruce Franks. With one notable exception, the Hubbard family prevailed in every race in which its members participated. This race could be a big test of the Hubbards’ political strength.
Can the unions push Zerr over the finish line?
While a lot of attention has been rightfully placed on big individual donors in primaries, they’re not the only interested parties.
Organized labor groups have made a sizable push to help state Rep. Anne Zerr defeat Bill Eigel and Mike Carter in the GOP primary for the 23rd Senatorial District seat. If Zerr doesn’t win, Senate Republicans could have an easier time overriding a veto of “right to work.'
Not only have national union leaders stated publicly that they’re watching the race, but they’ve also contributed directly and indirectly to Zerr’s campaign. One union-backed third-party group launched a television ad campaign that criticized Eigel and showcased Zerr’s anti-abortion credentials.
The ad’s emphasis on Zerr’s conservative credentials as opposed to her favorable opinion of labor unions (and the fact that organized labor is going all out for a Republican candidate) probably isn’t making some progressive-leaning groups very happy. But if Zerr wins, it could show that unions still have muscle in St. Charles County – especially after that interest group fell well short there in 2014.
Will Curtis’ opposition cancel each other out?
With his often-fierce criticism of labor unions, state Rep. Courtney Curtis made himself a big target in his bid for a third term.
But the ire against the Ferguson Democrat may actually help him win. That’s because three candidates with union ties filed in the Democratic primary and that presents a real possibility that the anti-Curtis vote may cancel each other out.
Curtis received a financial boost of sorts when the Humphreys family gave him five-figure contributions. Since he won a contested 2012 election over a well-funded opponent, it will be interesting to see if he can win with money – or whether his anti-union stances short-circuit his state legislative career.
Will St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger have a functioning majority on the St. Louis County Council?
The battle for the 4th District Council seat between Councilman Mike O’Mara, D-Florissant, and state Rep. Rochelle Walton Gray, D-Blackjack, may not be getting the attention of statewide or state legislative races. But depending on the outcome, it could have a profound impact on Stenger’s ability to get things through the council.
Democrats hold a 5-2 majority on the council, but it’s for all intents and purposes a 4-3 majority for Stenger. Even though most bills pass easily, controversial initiatives often get opposition from the council’s two Republican members and Councilwoman Hazel Erby, D-University City.
O’Mara is a staunch Stenger ally, while Gray would probably vote more independently. Labor unions delivered a huge infusion for O’Mara, but Gray probably has enough campaign money to be viable. Since African-Americans compose a majority of the 4th District, whether O’Mara stays or goes could come down to how high black turnout is on Election Day.
How will the Republican primaries in St. Louis affect the circuit attorney and sheriff's race?
No, that’s not a misprint. It’s completely possible that contentious GOP primaries could play a big role in two competitive Democratic primaries in St. Louis.
That’s because a decent amount of Republicans happen to live in southwest St. Louis, a major population center that often has very high voter turnout. Circuit attorney contender Mary Pat Carl and sheirff hopeful Joe Vaccaro live in southwest St. Louis and received most of the ward endorsements from that area.
Since Missouri doesn’t require party registration, it’s possible for Republicans to vote in Democratic primaries (and vice versa). But the highly contested races for governor and attorney general could prompt GOP city voters to stay in their lane, which could affect Carl and Vaccaro's chances.
It’s not out of the question that GOP voters’ decision-making could affect other races in south St. Louis, such as the three-way race for the 81st House District.
How will the “progressive slate” fare in St. Louis?
My St. Louis Public Radio colleague Rachel Lippmann detailed how a youngish group is seeking Democratic committeemen and committeewomen seats. And state Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal likely enhanced their viability when she donated money to the slate from her state campaign committee.
Many of the people running for these seats (as well as several state House seats) strongly supported U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential bid. Since many Sanders backers expressed an interest in getting more involved on a local or state level, these city-based contests could be a big test on whether that desire can translate into electoral success.
On the other hand, some incumbent committeepeople have spent years cultivating support with their wards' residents. So voting them out of office may not be an easy proposition.
Will Steinmanmania run wild on Missouri?
In a state with some colorful perennial candidates, few compare to Jefferson City gadfly Leonard Steinman. With his spray-painted van and Santa Claus-like beard, Steinman developed a cult-following of sorts from people really, really obsessed with Missouri politics.
This time around, Steinman is running in a Democratic primary that Attorney General Koster will almost certainly win. Earlier this year, Steinman contended that Koster was afraid to debate him – and buttressed that point with chicken noises.
Can Steinman’s wacky antics net a decent number of votes? Probably not. But he says he’s content with his status as a real-life, walking, talking meme, even if he doesn’t really know how a meme is defined.
On the Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads from the world of Missouri politics.
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