Updated Feb. 5 at 3:55 p.m. with "St. Louis on the Air" segment – KANSAS CITY, Mo. – With federal tax cuts leading the way, some top Missouri Republicans predict they’re on a path to a stronger election-year showing than many critics have predicted.
“I expect it to be a good year for Republicans in Missouri, “ said U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, who hosted Saturday’s breakfast at the state Republican Party’s annual Lincoln Days festivities, held this year in downtown Kansas City.
“It seemed like when the tax bill passed in December, it was almost like a light switch flipped on,” Blunt explained.
Listen: "St. Louis on the Air" host Don Marsh talks to political reporter Jo Mannies about the Republican Party’s plans for the upcoming elections discussed at their annual Lincoln Days gathering.
He added later, “The polling numbers since the tax bill passed have moved pretty dramatically nationally” in the GOP’s favor.
State Republican Party chairman Todd Graves, a Kansas City lawyer and former U.S. attorney, offered a similar assessment. Graves predicted that the state will see a huge GOP field operation this fall, that’s fueled in part by renewed party confidence.
“Our base was frustrated and the tax cut has definitely invigorated the base,’’ Graves said. “It has definitely altered the mood.”
But at the closing Lincoln Days banquet, analyst Scott Rasmussen threw a bit of cold water on all that optimism. While acknowledging the tax-cut boost, Rasmussen warned that the public's mood could change quickly.
"I'm not sure the trend is that solid yet,'' Rasmussen said. He noted that the last three presidents -- Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama -- each saw Congress flip to the opposition's control during a mid-term election. Looking ahead to this fall, Rasmussen continued, "There is a dynamic that works in these midterm elections that is creating an uphill struggle for Republicans.''
Still, former state Republican Party chairman John Hancock, who’s now a GOP strategist based in St. Louis, says he’s seeing a pro-Republican movement in other states where he’s working for clients.
“Six months ago, when the president’s approval numbers were in the middle to high 30s, it looked like it was going to be a really tough cycle, no question about it,’’ Hancock said.
But with business announcements of bonuses to employees, and improved economic activity, Hancock predicted “there’s a renewed excitement among Republicans that these mid-term elections” could turn out better than expected.
“I think Republicans have a good chance of holding the line in the U.S. House and perhaps gaining some seats in the U.S. Senate,” he said.
At Lincoln Days, much of that Senate attention is directed at state Attorney General Josh Hawley, who’s the best-known and best-funded of the Missouri GOP hopefuls vying to challenge Democratic incumbent Claire McCaskill.
Hawley has been highlighting McCaskill’s “no” vote on the tax-cut bill for weeks, saying it’s another example of her being too partisan and out of touch. McCaskill maintains the measure sends too many of the tax breaks to the rich.
Hawley defends sex-trafficking comments
Hawley also drew some attention this week over his comments in December to a group of pastors, in which he blamed the sexual climate in the 1960s and ‘70s for the rise in human trafficking.
After the Kansas City Star first reported the comments, Hawley’s campaign posted the audio of his entire speech on YouTube.
Hawley said Saturday that his chief point to the pastors was that “cultural exploitation of women has a lot to do’’ with the sex-trafficking problem.
“Hollywood and the media openly portray women as objects of sexual gratification and control for men,’’ he said. “And that’s something that became culturally acceptable, for them, in the ‘60s and ‘70s.”
Hawley rejected McCaskill’s characterization of his comments as evidence of his opposition to women’s contraception. He contended that she was trying to distract voters from more substantive issues, such as her opposition to the federal tax cuts.
Most of Hawley’s potential GOP rivals – including former Libertarian Austin Petersen and fellow Republican Tony Monetti – also are circulating at Lincoln Days.
Monetti, a former bomber pilot and assistant dean of aviation at Central Missouri University, cast himself as the anti-establishment candidate who is more in touch with Missouri voters.
Petersen contended that Hawley is playing into McCaskill’s hands with his comments tying the sexual revolution with sex trafficking.
Also seen Saturday was Courtland Sykes, a GOP Senate hopeful who’s attracted national attention over his disparaging comments about working women, calling them “career obsessed banshees.”
Many Republicans privately took note of national reports that U.S Rep. Ann Wagner, from Ballwin, might be reconsidering her decision last summer to drop plans to run for the U.S. Senate, thus helping to clear the way for Hawley.
Although Wagner wasn’t at Lincoln Days, several party activists close to her said it was unlikely – but not impossible – that she would change course.
Press barred from many Lincoln Day events
All but one of Missouri’s GOP members of Congress were absent because the weekend festivities conflicted with a House Republican caucus in Virginia.
Graves, the state GOP chairman, confirmed that party leaders had hoped to attract President Donald Trump or Vice President Mike Pence for Lincoln Days. But the White House had demurred months ago, Graves said.
He dismissed any link to last month’s scandal when Gov. Eric Greitens admitted he had engaged in an extramarital affair before he launched his 2016 campaign for governor. There was no public discussion of the matter at Lincoln Days. “As far as I’m concerned, that’s in the past,’’ Graves said.
The governor’s wife, Sheena Greitens, joined him on stage Saturday at a late-afternoon rally.
The rally and Saturday’s breakfast featuring Blunt and Hawley were among the few Lincoln Day events open to the press. Breaking decades of tradition, the state party – controlled by Greitens – closed many of the forums featuring state and federal lawmakers and activists. No explanation was given.
The state GOP committee meeting also was closed, although St. Louis Public Radio was in the hall long enough to watch Greitens welcome the state party leaders. “This is the strongest the Republican Party has ever been,’’ the governor said.
Later, at a forum – open to the press – of statewide officials, Greitens also highlighted the tax-cut theme as he reaffirmed his plans to cut state taxes.
Greitens told the crowd that his “top agenda for 2018 is cutting taxes and putting more money in your pocket.”
Lt. Gov. Mike Parson predicted that the tax-cut movement is propelling more national support for Trump. Parson added, “The Donald Trump train is getting ready to take off, and we better get ready to get on it.”