(Updated 1:10 p.m. Mon., Feb. 10)
Within a few weeks, it’s Show-Me time for Missouri’s two major political parties — the Republicans and Democrats – as they showcase their new chairmen and their biggest stars for what could be a crucial election year.
At a time when the public is increasingly turning away from organized political parties and classifying themselves as independents, it’s still largely up to the political parties and their networks to round up the contenders to run for office.
Although the candidates now often have to build their own money-raising operations, it’s still generally the political parties who provide the behind-the-scenes know-how and link candidates with needed consultants and professional staff.
George Connor, head of the political science department at Missouri State University, said that the clout of political parties has dramatically declined, particularly in the age of "social media'' like Twitter and Facebook and Missouri's lack of campaign donation limits.
"Parties are struggling to find their role in the 'new politics,' " Connor said. "They don't have the power they used to have."
Still, the state parties also will play a significant role in any serious effort to land a 2016 presidential convention in Kansas City or St. Louis. Democrats had St. Louis on the short list for 2012. This time, state Republicans are pressing for the national GOP to choose Kansas City for 2016.
But first, both state parties could have their hands full with this year’s fall elections. During a non-presidential election year like this one, it’s often up to the state political parties to provide the ways – and means – to energize independent voters who are less inclined to vote when there’s no marquee contenders for the White House.
Those non-aligned voters can make the difference in mid-term elections, when overall statewide turnout is generally lower.
The Missouri GOP will kick things off on Feb. 21 with its annual Lincoln Days festivities, where elected officials and wannabes from all over the state spend the weekend mingling with party activists and donors in hopes of energizing support as a first step leading into this summer and fall’s 2014 elections.
U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and a potential 2016 presidential hopeful, is to headline the event in Springfield, Mo.
A few weeks later, Missouri Democrats will launch a series of regional gatherings – beginning with the annual Democrat Days in Hannibal – with a similar aim. The climax is the state party’s annual Jefferson-Jackson dinner held annually in late spring in St. Louis and usually featuring a nationally known Democrat.
Both parties are expected to highlight issues they believe can best win voter support. For the GOP, a key focus continues to be its opposition to the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare. For Democrats, emerging issues center around economic inequality, such as a push to increase the minimum wage.
Amid the coming festivities, both parties’ organizational skills also will be on display beginning Feb. 25, when candidate filing for state, legislative and many local offices gets underway for a full month.
Republicans seek 2010 replay, while Democrats happy with 2012
In 2010, there’s no debate that Missouri Republicans did a better job of getting their base and like-minded conservatives to cast ballots. The GOP fall-off rate from the 2008 presidential election was kept to a minimum, a key reason Republicans won larger majorities in the General Assembly and took both statewide offices up for grabs that year.
Even Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., has noted that exit polls showed that the Republican sweep was due, in part, to more than 200,000 identified Democrats who stayed home in 2010. Their reappearance in 2012 saved her re-election bid and claimed Democratic victories for all but one statewide office.
Those back-to-back statewide swings are seen as reasons both of the state’s major parties have installed new chairmen within the past year.
Discontented Republican activists, many of them aligned with tea-party factions, ousted veteran GOP chairman David Cole a year ago to protest the party’s poor 2012 showing. They replaced him with conservative favorite Ed Martin, a St. Louis lawyer who lost his own bid for attorney general in 2012 to the Democratic incumbent, Chris Koster.
Conservatives sought the leadership change in hopes of resurrecting their 2010 ground game and putting the party on a winning path for 2016.
McCaskill, meanwhile, was among a bloc of top Democrats who drafted a longstanding firebrand of their own – political consultant Roy Temple of Kansas City – in hopes of crafting an operation that can prevent another disastrous election like 2010 and perhaps put the crowd of Democrats holding statewide office in strong shape for 2016. McCaskill and Koster both say they want a more aggressive party image.
The early results show the changes haven’t produced a clear advantage for either party. That could help explain the heightened partisan jockeying in Jefferson City. Republican leaders controlling the state legislature are more openly challenging Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat in his last term who appears to have ceded some of his control over internal party politics to others.
Money matters capture both parties' attention
Some Republicans are privately upset with Martin’s money-raising, pointing to the latest campaign finance report, filed Jan. 15, which showed the Missouri GOP to have only $7,282. The state Democratic Party reported $137,786. Traditionally, the Missouri Republican Party has had far more cash.
Martin replied, “We have raised what we projected for 2013 to cover the budget and plan.” He added that the state GOP also had retired “significant obligations’’ remaining from the 2012 election.
He also pointed to the Missouri Democratic Party’s debt of $216,712. The bulk of it is a mortgage on the Jefferson City building that the Democrats purchased several years ago.
Martin said that the Missouri Democratic Party’s bottom line was artificially boosted by a $100,000 donation in November from Koster's campaign. A Republican-turned-Democrat running for governor in 2016, Koster is playing an increasing powerful backroom role in Missouri Democratic politics.
Temple dismissed Martin’s jabs, saying that the Democratic Party is on “sound financial footing.” He said much of the credit should go to the former chairman, Jackson County Executive Mike Sanders.
Temple added that all of the state’s prominent Democrats, including Nixon, have been offering “cooperation and collaboration” to the state party as it prepares for this fall’s elections.
Connor at Missouri State University said both chairmen were skirting the obvious fact: "Neither of them has an awful lot of money to go around."
Party leaders focus on candidates, issues -- and cash
Arguably of more serious concern for the Democrats is that, so far, they have no candidate to challenge state Auditor Tom Schweich, a Republican seeking re-election this fall – and a possible candidate for governor in 2016.
State Rep. Jay Swearingen, D-North Kansas City, backed out a month ago after Schweich’s latest campaign-finance report showed him with $662,109. And that doesn’t include the $140,000 in large donations Schweich has collected in just the past month.
Although Swearingen cited Schweich’s bank account, Temple rejects any speculation that Schweich's money is deterring Democrats from challenging him.
“Nobody on Planet Earth is intimidated by Tom Schweich,’’ Temple said.
But Temple also acknowledged that money matters. “I get up every day waiting for my phone to ring, for a billionaire to call me to admit it’s been their undying lifelong dream to be state auditor of Missouri,’’ he said dryly. “Absent that, I go ahead and have conversations that are slightly more grounded in reality.”
In fact, some top Republicans said privately that they’re less concerned about the state party’s finances because Schweich and so many potential GOP candidates for 2016 already have raised their own campaign fortunes, putting them in strong positions to control their own political destinies.
Area Republicans also have their own candidate-recruiting problems. So far, the GOP has failed to find a high-profile contender for St. Louis County executive. Instead, incumbent Charlie Dooley faces his stiffest challenge from within his own Democratic ranks: County Councilman Steve Stenger.
Meanwhile, Martin already is targeting Koster, who has amassed far more than any other likely 2016 hopeful in either party. “We are defining how corrupt Chris Koster is while building the data and infrastructure we need to keep Missouri red,” Martin said.
Connor said the candidate-recruiting dilemmas of both parties underscore the limit power that party leaders now wield. Recalling 2004 as an example, he quipped, "In the 'olden days,' they cleared the field so Matt Blunt could run for governor" with no opposition from fellow Republicans.
Connor said the jockeying already underway among well-financed Republicans deciding on their own which post to seek in 2016 illustrates that the state parties have little power to decide who runs and who doesn't.
But both party chairmen believe their parties still have key roles to play in crafting the narratives that can appeal to voters.
“By reconnecting with rank-and-file, grassroots Republicans, we have, for the first time in decades, a coalitions program focused on key areas of common agreement,” Martin added, citing Republican emphasis on such issues as gun rights, opposition to abortion, and school choice.
Temple said a key Democratic aim this fall will be to chip away at the veto-proof majorities that Republicans now enjoy in the state House and Senate. “How do you eat an elephant?” he quipped. “One bite at a time.”
As part of that legislative focus, Temple said that state Democrats will highlight the GOP’s focus on fringe issues since it has controlled the General Assembly. “We are willing to make the case that there are important challenges facing the state of Missouri, and voters would be better served with stronger representation of the things they care about,” Temple added.
But Martin believes that the national political mood will help Missouri Republicans build on the edge they already enjoy when it comes to the state’s legislative and congressional seats.
“The general failure of Obamacare and the corruption of the Obama vision for America is helping folks take a look at our party,” Martin said. “We have a great platform and great ideas that we must then convince folks to support.”