On The Trail
8:46 pm
Sun August 3, 2014

Lessons Learned In Missouri's Relatively Tranquil Primary Season

By any conceivable measure, Missouri doesn’t have a particularly robust election cycle this year. But that doesn't mean that there aren't lessons to learn.

Even though this year's primary season featured fewer contested races than usual, the past few months still produced twists, turns and surprises. That’s especially true because a number of ballot initiatives were placed on the August ballot, making up for a relative dearth of competitive legislative contests.

With only a handful of hours before voters bring this year’s slate of primary elections to a close, here are some of the key takeaways from the past few months:

Nasty primaries rarely produce sober discussions of important issues

Primaries are more often than not about personalities, not ideologies. And there was no better example than the nasty intra-party battle between St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley and Councilman Steve Stenger.

Councilman Steve Stenger and St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley
Councilman Steve Stenger and St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley
Credit Parth Shah, St. Louis Public Radio

Make no mistake about it: St. Louis County has a lot of problems. But any debate over the possible solutions to these issues has taken a back seat to Stenger's and Dooley's jarringly negative ads, hostile confrontations during county council meetings and immaterial issues.

By contrast, the GOP contest between House Budget Chairman Rick Stream and Green Park Alderman Tony Pousosa has been tranquil – and reasonably substantive. This reporter characterized it as a “low-velocity primary,” mainly because the candidates’ discourse has been so mild in comparison. For the most part, the race has played out in the background as the Democratic candidates duke it out.

None of this is particularly surprising. A noisy campaign between two candidates spending a lot of money is going to attract more ink or airspace than a contest with less conflict -- especially when a longtime incumbent faces a powerful challenger. It remains to be seen if St. Louis County voters were tired enough from the fight to change their voting patterns in November.

Ballot initiatives make for strange bedfellows

State Rep. Jill Schupp, D-Creve Coeur, and state Sen. John Lamping, R-Ladue, have usually been on diametrically opposite sides of the political spectrum -- but not always.

Sen. John Lamping, R-Ladue, has been a constant critic of the transportation tax. He's part of a unique ideological alliance with more left-of-center groups and politicians to oppose the measure.
Sen. John Lamping, R-Ladue, has been a constant critic of the transportation tax. He's part of a unique ideological alliance with more left-of-center groups and politicians to oppose the measure.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum, St. Louis Public Radio

Schupp and Lamping, who isn't running for re-election, are both opposed to the 0.75 percent sales tax hike for transportation projects. They’re part of an ideologically diverse opposition coalition that includes Democrats like Gov. Jay Nixon and arch conservatives such state Sen. Ed Emery, R-Lamar, and state Rep. Paul Curtman, R-Pacific. They’re facing off against an equally diverse “pro” side that includes state Sen. Mike Kehoe, R-Jefferson City, and U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.

“It has produced some strange relationships,” Kehoe said earlier this year. “But at the end of the day, I think everybody involved in their heart just wants to do the right thing for Missourians, the right thing for our economy.”

Other ballot initiatives have produced surprising allies: Attorney General Chris Koster stumped for the “right to farm” amendment and recently endorsed a measure aimed at bolstering gun rights. The American Civil Liberties Union joined with conservatives like Curtman and state Sen. Rob Schaaf, R-St. Joseph, to back an amendment to protect electronic communications from unreasonable search and seizures.

All of these examples show that support or opposition to ballot initiatives don’t always fall on traditional partisan lines. Speaking of strange bedfellows…

Business and labor can get along, at least on transportation policy.

Business groups and unions have fought bitterly over bills in the Missouri General Assembly seen as hostile to organized labor, such as “right to work” and “paycheck protection.” But those fights seem like ancient history, especially when it comes to a sales tax increase for transportation projects. 

Jeff Aboussie's labor union is joining with prominent business groups to pass the transportation tax.
Jeff Aboussie's labor union is joining with prominent business groups to pass the transportation tax.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum/St. Louis Public Radio

Prominent business groups like the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and the St. Louis Regional Chamber have joined with labor to pass the 0.75 percent sales tax for transportation. It’s the type of alliance that’s driven millions of dollars in campaign contributions to a group supporting the tax, a strategy both sides hopes makes the difference tomorrow at the polls.

While labor and business groups quarrel over some legislative priorities, they so tend to come together on big initiatives benefiting their constituencies. After all, it stands to reason the contractors and labor unions that donated prodigiously to pass the tax will benefit from billions of dollars in projects.

“You’re seeing us being more engaged in economic development for the state and not just labor bills,” said St. Louis Building and Construction Trades Council secretary-treasurer Jeff Aboussie. “When those things happen, it puts our contractors and developers to work – which in turn puts our members to work.”

Added Missouri Chamber of Commerce President Dan Mehan: “The way I’ve always described it, labor and business are going to be like two kid brothers. We might fight all day. But at the end of the day, we better figure it out or nobody wins.”

Some primaries aren’t just about the candidates

Every two years, dozens upon dozens of people put their names on the line to run for the state legislature. When all is said and done, the winners of these races will be responsible for crafting legislation and voting on bills affecting millions of Missourians. 

The 76th District House seat race is a big test of U.S. Rep. Lacy Clay's (left) political muscle. On the right is his father, former U.S. Rep. William Clay.
The 76th District House seat race is a big test of U.S. Rep. Lacy Clay's (left) political muscle. On the right is his father, former U.S. Rep. William Clay.
Credit Bill Greenblatt, UPI

But sometimes legislative elections are as much about the people and interest groups in the background -- as opposed to the candidates themselves.

For instance, the race in the 76th House District between state Rep. Joshua Peters, D-St. Louis, and Chris Carter, Sr., is being run in the shadow of political dynasties of U.S. Rep. Lacy Clay, D-St. Louis, and the Carter family. State Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal -- a University City Democrat and a fierce critic of Clay -- has invested thousands of dollars from her campaign funds to defeat Peters.

Chappelle-Nadal is also targeting former University City Mayor Joe Adams in a University City-based state House. Adams ran against Chappelle-Nadal for the Senate in 2010, and apparently the two haven’t mended fences.

Elsewhere in the state, some GOP state legislators are being seriously challenged in Republican primaries – primarily because they voted against a tax cut override in 2013. The GOP challengers are being funded almost exclusively by the Missouri Club for Growth, a group bankrolled primarily by retired financier Rex Sinquefield.

Some GOP lawmakers see those races as a referendum on Sinquefield’s power over Missouri politics. Though some of Sinquefield’s preferred candidates have lost before, that hasn’t stopped him or supportive groups from donating to candidates.

Throw the bums out? Not really

How many times have you heard somebody talk about “throwing the bums” out of a legislative chamber? It’s an adage that’s thrown out a lot recently, especially with Congress’ record low approval rates. 

Many candidates for the Missouri House are facing no major party opposition this year.
Many candidates for the Missouri House are facing no major party opposition this year.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum, St. Louis Public Radio

That phrase rings a bit hollow when so many legislators are re-elected without serious challenges.

Case in point: At this point four years ago, 10 of the 17 primaries for state Senate seats were contested. Some of the contests were hard fought, especially in the St. Louis-based 14th and 26th districts.

This time around, only four of those same seats have competitive primaries. In two of them -- the St. Charles-based 2nd District and the St. Louis County-based 24th District – the outcome is actually in doubt. Roughly 60 House candidates face no major party opposition in either the primary or general elections, compared to about 43 unopposed contenders in 2010.

The upshot? Many of the same people currently in the Missouri General Assembly will return in 2015. That may not be a bad thing, considering the constant complaints about a lack of institutional memory within each legislative chamber. But folks unhappy with Missouri’s legislative state of affairs will likely have to wait until 2016 to see a major changeover of personnel.

On the Trail, a weekly column, weaves together the intriguing threads from the world of Missouri politics.