Even St. Louis County Councilman Steve Stenger seemed shocked by his huge margin of victory Tuesday over St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley in the Democratic primary.
“It certainly looks absolutely phenomenal,’’ Stenger told reporters, shortly before Dooley officially conceded.
Stenger won with 66 percent of the countywide vote, carrying most of the county’s 28 townships. But his electoral success could have repercussions this fall.
The Stenger/Dooley battle had some racial undertones that could cause Stenger problems when he takes on Republican Rick Stream, who easily won the GOP nomination.
“He’s going to have to heal the wounds from this, and do it pretty quickly,’’ said Dave Robertson, a political science professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
Dooley, who is the first African American to serve in the county’s top job, appeared to make the first move by using his concession speech to promise his support for Stenger.
Dooley lost big in predominantly white parts of the county. Most of his votes appeared to come from fellow African Americans, who make up close to a quarter of the county’s population.
At issue now is whether Stenger will be able to heal any racial rifts -- or if black voters will stay home this fall or defect from the Democratic ranks.
Stream confident of November victory
St. Louis County has been leaning Democratic for about 20 years, but many prominent Republicans believe that Stream could be the GOP candidate who could recapture the county’s top office.
Stream implied as much when he predicted in an interview, “A Republican is finally going to take the county.”
But giving Stream pause could be the fact that about 67 percent of the county’s voters took a Democratic ballot on Tuesday. In fact, Dooley – while losing big -- collected more votes than Stream.
Robertson estimates that about 10 percent of Stenger's votes may have come from Republicans who took a Democratic ballot, which is allowed under Missouri's open-primary rules. Tuesday's turnout saw a higher percentage of Democratic ballots cast than has been typical in off-year primaries in St. Louis County.
Stenger and Stream will likely target those swing voters as they head into the fall campaign, Robertson said.
Stenger told reporters that “this was an election that really transcended party politics. This was an election about change.”
That message appeared to be what voters wanted to hear, said Robertson. But he added that Stenger will need to emphasize that theme even more in the coming weeks, as Stream seeks to portray himself as the true change agent that St. Louis County needs.
Stenger seemed to recognize that fact in his televised acceptance speech. “I will turn the county around,’’ he declared.
Stenger was joined by St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Bob McCulloch, who also handily won his primary. Stenger publicly thanked McCulloch for his strong support, which included endorsements in TV ads. Ironically, Stenger garnered more votes Tuesday than McCulloch did.
Stenger also made a point of thanking the region's major labor organizations, most of which had backed him and campaigned actively on his behalf. Many labor leaders had been angry with Dooley over county contracts to non-union firms and appointments that they believed were anti-labor.
Negative ads took their toll
Stenger, 42, is from Affton and has been a county councilman since 2009. He told reporters that Tuesday’s victory marked “the third best night” in his life – behind his marriage and the recent birth of his first child.
Stenger held his seven-week-old daughter, Madeline Jane, during part of his victory speech.
Stenger had been hammering Dooley for weeks with ads on the various FBI investigations of parts of county government, although Dooley has maintained that he was never the target.
Dooley, in turn, had highlighted his 10-plus years as county executive, saying his experience was what the county needed. Dooley also had attacked Stenger in a series of ads that jabbed at Stenger’s legal practice, but the assaults didn’t appear to halt the defection of voters from Dooley.
Dooley's campaign treasurer John Temporiti blamed Dooley's loss on county voters' opposition to Amendment 7, the proposed transportation tax. Temporiti believes that the transportation tax brought out more county voters than expected to show up at the polls.
Tuesday’s loss was a stunning setback for Dooley, who had weathered vigorous – and, at times, vicious – Republican assaults during his previous three times on the ballot.
Dooley, 66, had been a county councilman when he was elevated to county executive in late 2003 following the sudden death of then-County Executive George R. “Buzz” Westfall, a fellow Democrat.
Dooley won re-election in 2004, 2006 and 2010 – the latter a particularly notable victory because he was among the few major Democrats to fend off a statewide GOP wave.
Dooley and Stenger likely will share the podium on Wednesday, at the next meeting of the County Council. Stenger predicted that the mood – which has been tense for weeks – will not affect county operations. “The business of St. Louis County been getting done while this campaign has been going on,” Stenger said. “It will get done.”
But early Wednesday, the council meeting was canceled -- signaling that some tensions still linger.
Parth Shah, Rachel Lippmann and Chris McDaniel contributed information for this article.