On the Trail: At state convention, Democrats look past primary fight to focus on Trump | St. Louis Public Radio

On the Trail: At state convention, Democrats look past primary fight to focus on Trump

Jun 18, 2016

You could say that Ken Jacob was for Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid before it was cool.

The former Democratic state senator from Columbia backed Clinton when she ran against then-U.S. Sen. Barack Obama in 2008. Eight years after narrowly falling short both in Missouri and nationally that year, Clinton is poised to become the Democratic presidential nominee when the party meets for its national convention. And after being selected a Clinton delegate at congressional caucuses, Jacob will get to witness Clinton getting the nomination later this summer in Philadelphia.

“She was cool back in 2008. And I’m happy to see her as the nominee,” said Jacob, who is now the deputy director for the Missouri’s Department of Labor and Industrial Relations. “And I think she’s going to be the next president.” 

Missouri Democratic Party chairman Roy Temple presides over his party's state convention in Sedalia.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio

Jacob joined hundreds of Missouri Democrats who gathered at the Missouri Democratic Party’s state convention in Sedalia. After a primary that saw Clinton narrowly top U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders in the Show Me State, most attendees were cautiously optimistic about the impending general election campaign – especially with Donald Trump at the top of the GOP ticket.

“I think and I hope that Trump’s going to be annihilated. On a state level, it’s going to be a lot closer,” said John Shaughnessy, a convention attendee from Webster County. “But Missouri is really a conservative state ... You know, it’s going to depend on the next few months to see if [Trump] can moderate his topics – or his delivery. He might still salvage some things.”

While the divide between the two camps hasn’t fully healed yet, many of the party’s top officials say it is possible to unite against a common political foe. And that could help other Democratic candidates up and down the ballot.

“Whatever the things that divided Democrats in the primary process are dwarfed in comparison to the gap between most Democrats and Donald Trump,” said Missouri Democratic Party chairman Roy Temple. “So I think Donald Trump is the best tool that we have to unify Democrats.”

The Bern is heard

Persephone Dakopolos, a candidate for the Democratic National Committee, speaks to the Missouri Democratic Party Convention in Sedalia.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio

From an official standpoint, Missouri Democrats spent the weekend choosing the remaining delegates to go to Philadelphia. They also voted on the party’s representatives to the Democratic National Committee.

Because Clinton only beat Sanders by a little over 1,000 votes, the two camps will have roughly the same amount of delegates headed to Philadelphia. And while Clinton is widely expected to win the Democratic nomination later this summer, Sanders delegates are hoping to influence the national Democratic platform to be more in line with the Vermont senator’s views.

And on Saturday, Sanders supporters made their presence felt in a big way: They were able to get aspects of Sanders' platform into a slate of resolutions that was passed by acclimation. And since far more Sanders delegates showed up for the state convention, that delegation was able to sweep all four available Democratic National Committeepeople positions.

One of the people picked as national committeewoman was St. Louis Alderman Megan Green. She said Saturday's clean sweep was the first time this year that four sitting DNC members were replaced by four Sanders supporters.

The 15th Ward Democrat, who is attending the national convention as a Sanders delegate, is on of many fans of Sanders turning their attention to the Democratic platform.

“Most of us who are Sanders supporters know that this is never been just about Bernie Sanders or just about the presidency,” Green said. “It’s really about moving this country in a more progressive way. So it means championing a $15 an hour minimum wage. It means investing in big infrastructure projects that create jobs and rebuild our roads and bridges across this country. It means looking at single payer health systems. It means tackling the student debt crisis. And those are all of the things we want to go and really fight for at the Democratic National Convention.” 

Clinton supporters Rachel Gonzalez and St. Louis Alderman Jack Coatar are both going to the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia as Clinton delegates.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio

Sanders came close in the Missouri primary thanks in part to his strength in rural Missouri, which traditionally gravitated toward more conservative candidates. Sanders supporter Richard Napieralski said the Vermont senator had a message that resonated – even in bright red parts of the state like southwest Missouri.

“All the people in that area know that things are not working for them economically,” said Naiperalski, who lives in Springfield. “And they know that the two-party system is not working for them economically. So when Bernie Sanders comes along and says, ‘Hey, we need to change things and we can only do that within the Democratic Party,’ that’s appealing to a lot of people.”

The big question, though, is whether Sanders supporters can come around to strongly back Clinton in November. Some Sanders backers that attended the convention, like St. Charles resident Eric Seider, aren’t completely sure that will happen.

“There are a lot of young Bernie supporters, including my kids, who will probably never vote for Hillary,” Seider said. “I think there’s older adults like myself who are going to be forced to vote for the Democratic candidate as opposed to voting for Donald Trump. And I think that’s what the whole election has boiled down to … I think Hillary has too long a history of scandal and various things that have showed up. And maybe that’s the media’s fault. But where there’s that much smoke, there’s going to be that much fire.”

St. Joseph resident Jenna Squires is headed to Philadelphia as a Sanders delegate. She thinks the Vermont senator's campaign will have a long-lasting impact on Missouri.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio

Other Sanders supporters said long-term effects of Sanders’ candidacy could be a net positive for Democrats. For instance: Sanders supporter Jenna Squires said her candidate may have lit a spark for young people to stay involved in politics – and ultimately run for office. That could ultimately help Democratic fortunes up and down the ballot.

“We call it the political revolution,” said Squires, who is from St. Joseph “It’s already taking place where we have grassroots candidates popping up all over the country and from my neck of the woods. We have millennials who are getting out there and learning the entire system from the ground up to finally participate – and feel like we need to do anything and everything now to get our voice heard.”

The Trump factor

Other convention attendees are more bullish about the prospects for November – and how Democrats will fare in Missouri in the future. Much of that optimism stems from Trump’s presence on the top of the Republican ticket.

"Missouri is a very balanced state on a statewide level. Obviously at a legislative level, it’s a little uneven," Temple said. "But at a statewide level, it’s a very balanced state. And I think we could very well have a year in which Hillary runs very strong here in Missouri. As you say, it’s a little early to tell which states will be battlegrounds and which will have big funded operations. But this has been an extraordinary year already and I think we’ll see that continue as we approach November. And I think she fare well." 

Former Missouri Gov. Bob Holden speaks with an attendee of the Missouri Democratic Party state convention in Sedalia.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio

Clinton supporter John Bowman said that he hopes Clinton can put in a good enough showing to bolster Democratic fortunes in the Missouri General Assembly.

“That’s pretty much a very good reason for us to mount a serious campaign in Missouri, because we have an opportunity to pick up seats in both the House and Senate on the down-ticket just because of a good campaign being run by the Hillary camp,” said Bowman, a national delegate for Clinton and a former state representative. “Before I think when I was there, they understood the need for representatives to represent their constituents in their base. But at the same time, there needs to be a contrast and compare. We need to clearly keep our identity as Democrats and not look so much like Republicans that they decide to just take the real Republican.”

Clinton supporter and National DNC Committeeman Doug Brooks said “the importance of not electing Donald Trump” will “be a great motivator for people to come together.” And fellow DNC Committeeman Brian Wahby noted how there were hard feelings between Clinton and Obama supporters after the hard-fought 2008 campaign – and that didn’t affect the outcome of the general election.

“As evidenced at the convention and then afterwards, we all came together,” said Wahby, who is also a Democratic committeeman in St. Louis. “We will come together. The one thing that helps more than anything is Donald Trump. I don’t you’ll find anybody in here in this whole room that wants to support Donald Trump for president or wants to see him be president.

“As much as Trump will hurt the Republicans, Hillary Clinton’s message will help the Democrats’ message in the state,” he added.

Cautious Koster

One person who’s hoping that Wahby’s prediction comes true is Attorney General Chris Koster. As the presumptive Democratic nominee for governor, a strong Clinton performance could help him in a competitive general election. (Although it should be noted that Gov. Jay Nixon easily won re-election in 2012 even though Obama lost Missouri decisively, a result that was almost certainly helped by U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill’s decimation of former U.S. Rep. Todd Akin.) 

Attorney General Chris Koster visited the Democratic faithful on Friday night in Sedalia.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio

Koster, though, was somewhat cautious about declaring Clinton a shoo-in, considering a Democratic presidential candidate hasn’t carried Missouri in 20 years. He did note, however, that “Mr. Trump is in a bit of a tailspin.” 

“It appears to be a serious tailspin. And it could be lasting. But it’s too early to bet on it yet. I also think that Secretary Clinton has found a voice that seems to be solid and something that she can work with and work with successfully over the next four and a half months,” Koster said.  “So if things continues as they are today, I think that Secretary Clinton can be competitive here – possibly win. But it’s still a conservative state. But Donald Trump has really got his campaign in a bit of a spin right now.”

As he stood next to a building on the State Fairground named after former Democratic state Sen. Jim Matthewson, Koster reiterated that the party needs to reach out to rural Missourians that used to vote for Democrats. A failure to do so, he said, could make it difficult to make significant gains in the legislature -- and provide longer term problems for the party's viability.

“I have been somewhat critical about the narrowing of the Republican tent over the last 15 years – and it was really impactful in my decision to switch parties. But the Democrats have to be careful not to narrow the Democratic tent as well. And in this part, this central part of the state, conservative Democratic politics is still something that is desired I think. And I also believe that there’s a conservative Rorschach test that state voters crave. They want to know are you fiscally conservative, and my personal belief is they want to some respect for the Second Amendment. But after you get through those two issues, I really believe that the needle moves back to Democratic issues.

“The third issue that everyone asks about is ‘when are you going to get money for our schools? And how are you going to fund health care in a rural community so our rural hospital doesn’t go under. And how are we going to support wages in communities that are increasingly poor?’” he said. “Once you get through those first two issues, I think Democrats can be very, very successful in this state.”

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