On the Trail: Answering the 12 questions asked before a red wave swept through Missouri
Missouri Republicans Tuesday night experienced their greatest triumph in the Show Me State’s modern history. And Missouri Democrats had arguably their worst night ever.
Those two declarative statements may seem like hyperbole, but it’s pretty close to the truth. Tuesday marked the first time ever Republicans won seven statewide elections in a single night. And with commanding majorities in the Missouri General Assembly, Gov.-elect Eric Greitens will be in a profoundly powerful position to enact his agenda – and to sign longstanding GOP priorities into law.
Much of these results can be attributed to President-elect Donald Trump’s enormous win in the state. His nearly 20-point margin of victory is almost unprecedented in modern Missouri history. But other factors exist: The party fielded well-funded statewide candidates who didn’t make crucial mistakes. And it dominated in Missouri’s rural outposts, and held down Democratic margins in the state’s suburbs.
To drill down further, here are answers to the 12 questions posed earlier this week about Tuesday’s election:
What will be the margin of Trump’s Missouri victory?
An enormous spread of nearly 20 percentage points.
Trump has the largest margin victory for a winning presidential candidate in Missouri since 1984, when then-President Ronald Reagan bested Democrat Walter Mondale by more than 20 percentage points.
During that year, Republicans swamped Democrats in most statewide races – including John Ashcroft’s roughly 13-point win the governor’s contest. But even Reagan’s landslides didn’t facilitate sweeps of all statewide offices or supermajorities in the Missouri General Assembly. Tuesday’s election results produced those exact results.
Are presidential coattails overrated?
Not this cycle.
While the 2012 campaign proved that Democrats could still win races in states carried by Republican presidential candidates, this year’s election proved there’s a limit to that type of scenario. No matter how well a candidate performs, they’re not going to be able to withstand their party’s presidential nominee getting shellacked by nearly 20 percentage points.
Outgoing Attorney General Chris Koster appeared to acknowledge this reality in his short Tuesday-night concession speech. Even though the Republican-turned-Democrat tried to appeal to GOP voters with his conservative views on guns and agriculture policy, Greitens still won most of rural Missouri by solid margins.
“Missouri is a very conservative state, and I think that’s just basically the way you’ve got to look at it,” said St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay. “We knew that this was going to be a tough state for Hillary Clinton. She knew it was going to be a tough state for her. This has been a red state for the last several elections overall.”
Can Greitens and Blunt ride the Trump Train to victory?
Unlike other Republican candidates around the country, Greitens and U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt didn’t bail on their presidential nominee when Trump appeared to be careening in October. In fact, both candidates showcased supportive Tweets from Trump endorsing their candidacies the day before the election.
Conversely, neither Koster nor Democratic U.S. Senate hopeful Jason Kander made much of an effort to derisively tie their opponents to Trump. That type of strategy wouldn’t have made much logical sense: It’s not exactly a potent attack to say “my opponent supports the presidential nominee that the vast majority of Missourians support.”
“I didn’t support Donald Trump because of his moral values, because I didn’t know what they were,” said Lt. Gov.-elect Mike Parson before Tuesday’s primary. “I supported Donald Trump — I still support Donald Trump — because I thought he would do something with the illegal problems coming into this country. I think he will try to do something with infrastructure in this country to try and rebuild this country again.”
And it should be noted that the reason Republicans weren’t successful in 2012 was that, despite Romney’s sizable victory, then-U.S. Senate hopeful Todd Akin’s “legitimate rape” comments blunted any trickle-down effect. Neither Blunt nor Greitens made any catastrophic gaffes. On the contrary: Both ran disciplined campaigns that probably contributed to GOP victories elsewhere on the ballot.
How will third party candidates perform?
Not badly, but not enough to make a difference.
Libertarian Presidential nominee Gary Johnson ended up getting about 3.5 percent of the vote – which is more than a typical third party candidate gets in Missouri. And while third-party candidates got anywhere from roughly 3 to 4 percentage points in statewide races, the Republican margins of victory were so large that they didn’t make much of a difference in the outcome.
And despite spending a presumably large amount of money on billboards that declared “Les is More,” independent gubernatorial hopeful Lester Turilli ended up getting a smaller share of the vote than Libertarian governor nominee Cissie Spragins.
Will organized labor bounce back after a disappointing primary?
No. In fact, it’s safe to say Missouri’s labor unions experienced their worst night ever.
With Greitens’ victory, it’s inevitable that Missouri will enact “right to work,” which bars employers and unions from requiring workers to pay dues. To rub salt in the wound, a number of Republican legislative candidates that support right to work won key state Senate and state House races – even though labor groups poured hundreds of thousands of dollars to get their allies across the finish line.
While Senate Democrats will surely try to stop “right to work,” it’s likely that Republican lawmakers will use a filibuster-squashing “previous question” motion to get it to Greitens’ desk.
“If [the previous question] becomes a common tool, then all that we have in the Senate is a war,” said Sen. Gina Walsh, a Bellefontaine Neighbors Democrat with strong ties to organized labor. “That’s all we have. Missouri won’t move forward. They can continue to use it. But we won’t be functional. We will no longer be a functional body.”
And things won’t get easier for labor. If a constitutional amendment enacting campaign donation limits withstands a court challenge, organized labor groups will no longer be able to directly donate to political candidates. That will make building up their allies in the General Assembly all the more challenging.
How will Republicans perform in south St. Louis County and Jefferson County?
Overall, Republicans performed well in both of these places.
The GOP has to be especially pleased with its performance in Jefferson County, a traditionally Democratic area that tends to vote for Democrats in presidential years. Incumbent state representative candidates won their races by sizable margins, a result almost certainly helped by Trump’s huge win.
Republicans also did well in south St. Louis County. In the fifth match-up between the two, state Rep. Cloria Brown, R-St. Louis County, narrowly beat Democrat Vicki Englund. And in a race for the St. Louis County Council, Republican Ernie Trakas edged Democrat Pat Yaeger for the 6th District Council seat. That means St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger will have only two firm allies (Democratic Councilmen Sam Page and Pat Dolan) on the council – a complete reversal from when he came into office.
Still, the news wasn’t all bad for south St. Louis County Democrats. State Sen. Scott Sifton won a fairly comfortable victory over Republican Randy Jotte. The Affton Democrat clearly made a wise move running for re-election instead of attorney general, a statewide gambit he almost surely would have lost.
Are Missourians ready to embrace millennial candidates?
Yes, but not at the top of ticket.
While Kander emphasized his youthfulness in comparison to the 66-year-old Blunt, he ended up losing the U.S. Senate race by about three percentage points. Blunt’s win proves again that he is one of Missouri’s most skilled and successful political figures. But Kander can take solace that he ran a fairly solid campaign: He did run ahead of every other Democratic statewide hopeful – including Koster.
While Missourians delected several Millennials to the Missouri Senate, Generation X proved to be not lame at the ballot box. Republicans born in the 1970s -- Eric Greitens, Eric Schmitt, Josh Hawley and Jay Ashcroft – all prevailed in their respective races, leaving this Millennial reporter with some egg on his face.
Three Millennials were elected to the Missouri Senate: Republicans Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, and Andrew Koenig, R-Manchester, and Democrat John Rizzo, D-Kansas City. And voters selected almost-Millennial Hawley to be the next attorney general. (Hawley was born on Dec. 31, 1979, which means he just missed the arbitrary Millennial cutoff date of Jan. 1, 1980.)
How big will Republican majorities be in the General Assembly?
Because of Rowden’s win over Democrat Stephen Webber, Republicans will hold 24 seats when the legislature reconvenes in January. That number will eventually grow to 25, as the GOP will almost certainly win a special election for Parson’s southwest Missouri-based Senate seat that he’ll vacate to become lieutenant governor.
House Republicans, meanwhile, will have 117 members next year. They ended up winning a Democratic held seat (Republican Mark Matthiesen beat Democrat Byron DeLear) and losing a Republican held seat (Democrat Mark Ellebracht defeated Republican Mary Hill).
Considering that many observers thought that 2014 was the pinnacle for the GOP majority, Tuesday’s break-even result has to be gratifying for legislative Republicans. And it’s unlikely that 2018 will bring about any major changes, as there aren’t a significant number of Senate or House seats that will be strongly contested.
How will newcomers fare?
In an election in which a person with no elective experience won the presidency, newcomers fared pretty well.
Both Greitens and Hawley outmaneuvered experienced Democratic opponents. And in a race where the victor was certain to be a first-time officeholder, Ashcroft easily dispatched Democrat Robin Smith.
“Throughout our travels, voters emphasized the same message,” said Ashcroft during his victory speech. “They simply want a government to leave them alone, free to live their lives as they saw fit.”
Ashcroft’s win is a big reversal of fortune from two years ago, when he lost a hotly contest state Senate race to Democrat Jill Schupp. Schupp, D-Creve Coeur, said on Tuesday it was difficult to watch the person she beat two years ago ascend to statewide office.
“Obviously this was a tougher election year than any of us thought,” Schupp said. “It is unbelievable to think that somebody who I beat in my Senate race can go in and take over an important office like the secretary of state’s office with zero experience – or the governor’s office with zero experience in how to lead and how to show and how demonstrate a vision in how to serve the people of the state of Missouri well.”
Is it the year of the woman?
Not in Missouri, at least on a statewide level.
All three of Missouri’s female statewide aspirants – Smith, Tersea Hensley, Judy Baker – lost their respective races for secretary of state, attorney general and treasurer. In fact, those three candidates lost by larger margins than their male counterparts on the ballot.
While Democratic candidates like Koster and Kander had substantial financial resources at their disposal, Hensley, Smith and Baker were all severely outspent by their GOP counterparts. That is bound to prompt a discussion about whether Democratic interest groups and donors were willing to support female statewide candidates as much as their male counterparts (although with Trump’s big victory, it may not have made a difference).
Tuesday’s election results means that there are two female statewide officials in Missouri: Democratic state Auditor Nicole Galloway and U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill. Both will likely face tough Republican challengers in 2018. But if she wins election, Galloway would almost by default be considered a potential gubernatorial challenger to Greitens in 2020. Then again, four years is an eternity in Missouri politics.
What’s in a name?
There was an open question before Tuesday about whether candidates with deep familiar political ties would thrive in this election cycle.
In the end, coming from a political family didn’t really matter – as long as the candidate was a Republican. That’s because both Blunt (whose father and son were in elected office) and Ashcroft (whose father is a former U.S. attorney general) won.
But Democrats such as lieutenant governor hopeful Russ Carnahan, state Senate candidate Stephen Eagleton and state House aspirant Martin Rucker II all got swept up in the red wave.
Blunt was relentlessly attacked over the past few weeks for being consumed in the Washington, D.C., political culture. But that attack wasn't effective enough to prevent Blunt for get another six-year term in the Senate -- and possibly a pathway to move up in Republican leadership.
Will this expensive election be an end of an era?
As expected, voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment setting up campaign donation limits. But whether that measure actually stops the flow of money into Missouri politics is unknown.
For one thing, the proposal, known as Amendment 2, is expected to face a lawsuit. And even if the measure survives legal scrutiny, it’s highly likely that big donors will shuttle large amount of money to committees that amendment doesn’t affect.
And more notably, the impact of big money will be unmistakable regardless of whether it can’t go directly to candidates anymore. Big donors who wanted to see Missouri become a right-to -work state won key elections, including the most significant one for governor. With Republicans expected to control the legislature for years to come, undoing their legislative accomplishments will be profoundly difficult.
On the Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads from the world of Missouri politics.
Copyright 2016 St. Louis Public Radio