PHILADELPHIA – There’s a decent chance Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign could greatly impact Martin Rucker II’s professional career.
The former Mizzou football star is running as a Democrat for state representative in the Kansas City area. Since he’s running in a district that’s not exactly a sure thing for Democrats, Rucker will probably need strong showing from people higher up the ballot to help him out.
And there’s no person who’s higher up than Clinton, who Rucker watched accept the Democratic nomination for president.
“I think the way it’s going to impact the most is it's going to bring a lot of people out to vote,” said Rucker, who is a Clinton delegate at the Democratic National Convention. “I think that the difference between the parties has been illustrated. Everyone knows what’s at stake and everyone knows, depending on how you feel, which party you basically can’t vote for.”
Delegates like Rucker are generally optimistic about Clinton’s ability to help Missouri’s Democratic candidates. But that bullishness is tempered by the fact that a Democratic nominee hasn’t won the state in nearly 20 years — and by how Missouri’s electorate appears to be drifting to the right.
“I’m from St. Louis. I’m from Missouri. I’m not from Missourah,” said Brian Wahby, a Democratic committeeman from St. Louis and an at-large member of the Democratic National Committee. “And there’s a lot of what’s happening in our state that’s totally inconsistent with the beliefs of the people in the major metropolitan areas. And it may be highlighted in this election unfortunately. But we’ll see. I think there’s a lot of time. Donald Trump’s consistent ability to say silly, stupid things is really unimaginable. But I think eventually, some of this stuff has to stick.”
There’s another issue if the attacks against Trump don’t “stick.” The fact that Republican presidential candidates "won" in Missouri in the last two cycles shows that Democrats don’t need to win the state to capture the presidency. And the lack of money and organizational muscle that a presidential campaign can bring to a state can place Democratic candidates like Rucker at a disadvantage.
Still, Gov. Jay Nixon sees neither Clinton nor Trump spending a lot of time or energy to win Missouri. So, Nixon theorizes that Missourians are basically seeing a “reaction to the national narrative, as opposed to a grinding real campaign.”
“And so that national narrative, it tends to be light. It tends to be caricature-like,” Nixon said. “And in that sense, sometimes people don’t get the full sense of the seriousness of what’s going on. I think the numbers will move a little bit. And hopefully Missouri will be more in play. I’d like to see the campaign fought on our ground again. If it does, I think Missourians will be there for Clinton.”
There have been examples when the presidential contest clearly affected outcomes of Missouri’s elections. In 2004, a strong performance from then-President George W. Bush probably helped the GOP capture Missouri’s governorship. Four years later, then-U.S. Sen. Barack Obama’s near-win in Missouri almost led to a statewide sweep for Democrats.
But there’s another argument that the presidential race’s impact on down-ballot campaigns is overblown. U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, for instance, easily won re-election in 2012 — even though GOP nominee Mitt Romney crushed Obama in Missouri. Spurred on by then-U.S. Rep. Todd Akin’s political implosion, McCaskill’s big victory likely helped other candidates on the ticket — like Secretary of State Jason Kander.
“People split their tickets in Missouri. They go down each individual race,” she said on Thursday. “The people who decide the elections in Missouri decide it candidate by candidate, race by race.”
McCaskill also pointed to how Republicans may not be terribly enthusiastic about Trump. McCaskill observed how some of Missouri’s top elected officials were “traveling” when asked to comment about Trump’s (supposedly sarcastic) request for Russia to hack Clinton’s e-mails.
“And I commented ‘what do they have soup cans and string? You know, do they not have phones? Have they all given up their cell phones?’” McCaskill said. “When I travel, I can be reached. They can be reached. So it’s an awkward situation that you have your presidential candidate during the Democratic National Convention saying something that no one wants to even say a word. They’re so embarrassed they don’t even know what to say. That could have impact.”
Nixon said Clinton possesses some strengths, like her experience and readiness to become president. But he went onto say she’s hurt by “this national caricature or this issue of the week or the day in which they think a tweet from somebody is equivalent to a lifetime of service of work.”
“And so in that sense, that’s the campaign that Trump is going to run,” Nixon said. “It’s going to be a ‘how are we going to quip our way forward.’ And I think that may yield benefits early in the campaign when people are still laughing about it and talking about it, but people get very serious when they get in their voting booth. And I ultimately think you’re going to see the numbers come into a very good place as we move forward in the fall.”
The Bernie factor
Rucker though sees another national figure that could affect Democratic hopes this fall: U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders.
The Vermont senator nearly won Missouri’s Democratic primary earlier this year. And some Missouri delegates who support Sanders have substantial misgivings about Clinton — and her running mate Tim Kaine.
“They’re very, very, very important. We’re going to need them to turnout,” Rucker said. “But the thing is, we don’t just need them to turn out to vote. They are walkers. They’re door knockers. They’re workers. And we need their work for Hillary as well. And so, it’s going to take a little time for them to heal. And that’s OK. They deserve that time. We need to respect that and give them their time to heal. But also need their help. Because if they don’t want Hillary to win, then they definitely don’t want Donald Trump to win.”
A few Sanders delegates had a mixed assessment of whether the convention helped cool tensions. Farmington resident and Sanders delegate Levi Asher said that “it’s a slow process to make sure that we’re on the same page, and that we’re all moving forward together.”
“But I think the process is working its way out,” Asher said, noting that by the time of her speech "most of us will be not maybe enthusiastic about Hillary Clinton, but voting for her and supporting her election in November.”
St. Louis resident and Sanders delegate Brent Welder took a dimmer view of how the convention unfolded. He said the day before the convention started, Sanders supporters “got documented proof that the entire primary had been rigged and the chairwoman resigned in scandal.” The fact that Clinton still received the nomination, Welder said, showed that things didn’t go very well for Sanders or his supporters.
He said some Sanders supporters might end up voting for Green Party presidential nominee Jill Stein — while others will back Clinton. But he emphasized that Sanders backers will be very active to help down-ballot Democratic candidates.
“We’re going to definitely stay active,” Welder said. “I think we are the most active group of volunteers anywhere in the party. And we’re going to keep up the good fight, that’s for sure. It’s too important to stop that’s for sure.”
McCaskill held a meeting with Sanders delegates on Wednesday. She said one couldn’t expect people who were “working their hearts out, many for the first time ever in a political campaign” and immediately expect them to go “oh, yeah we’re for Hillary.”
“I mean how silly we would be to think that,” McCaskill said. “They’re going to come here. They’re going to make their voices heard. They’re going to try and influence the Democratic Party. And while there have been times when it’s been irritating to some of the Hillary supporters, I think we need to be patient and understand.
"I found when I sat down and visited them yesterday that these are a reasonable group of people that just care deeply. And by the way, what a great thing for us! I hope that they will stay involved and we need that kind of energy in our party. Not just in Missouri, but all over the country.”
On the Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads from the world of Missouri politics.