We asked questions at the beginning of the year about Missouri politics — Here are the answers | St. Louis Public Radio

We asked questions at the beginning of the year about Missouri politics — Here are the answers

Dec 31, 2018

It's fair to say that Missouri politics may not see another year like 2018.

There’s little doubt that the past 12 months were historic, as Missouri saw the fall of a governor — and the election of a new U.S. Senator. This year also brought titanic political shifts throughout the state — as well as locally throughout St. Louis County — that could reverberate for a long time.

It’s a lot to take in, so what better way to wrap it all up than to revisit the questions this reporter posed in early January? Some of the answers may showcase why it’s foolhardy to make predictions about Show-Me State politics.

Will Greitens face a rebellion from Republican legislators?
Gov. Eric Greitens walks away from reporters after making a statement outside the Circuit Court building on May 14, 2018.
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio

Uh … “rebellion” would be a mild descriptor to what happened to then-Gov. Eric Greitens this year.

In one of the most shocking falls from grace in Missouri history, the revelation of a 2015 extramarital affair sparked a nearly five-month saga resulting in Greitens’ resignation. Had he not stepped down, it was almost certain Greitens would have faced impeachment from the GOP-controlled House.

Many Republicans were all too eager to throw Greitens overboard after he spent most of 2017 crafting a dismal relationship with the General Assembly. But even if Greitens had established better ties with representatives and senators, allegations of sexual and physical abuse (which he denied) may have driven him from office anyway.

Without question, Greitens’ departure was the biggest Missouri political story of 2018 — and perhaps the entire decade. And now, it’s up to Gov. Mike Parson to achieve some of the policy and political goals that Greitens squandered.

Will Donald Trump remain popular in Missouri?
GOP U.S. Senate hopeful Josh Hawley greets President Donald Trump in March at St. Louis Lambert International Airport.
Credit File photo I Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio

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President Trump’s popularity may be sinking in other parts of the country, but he’s still popular enough in Missouri to help Republicans.

In fact, Trump’s towering standing in rural Missouri almost certainly assisted Attorney General Josh Hawley rack up insurmountable margins against U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill. The Democratic senator could have received 100,000 more votes in St. Louis and Kansas City, and it still wouldn’t have been enough.

But even with the big statewide wins, there are some disconcerting signs locally for the Missouri GOP. McCaskill won St. Louis County by more than 100,000 votes, which likely came about as Trump’s approval ratings in suburban areas declined nationally. This outcome made some usual slam-dunk contests, like Missouri’s 2nd Congressional District race, closer than normal.

That means that Missouri Republicans may have some rebuilding to do in case Trump isn’t as popular in rural and exurban parts of the state as he was this year.

Can U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill forge a path to re-election?
Sen. Claire McCaskill speaks to reporters at Lona's Lil Eats in St. Louis on Aug. 30, 2018.
Credit File photo I Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio

Nope.

McCaskill is widely seen as one of the state’s sharpest political minds. But Trump’s aforementioned popularity was clearly a big hurdle to a third term. To win, she needed to run up her margins in urban areas, win most of the suburban areas and hold down Hawley’s tally in rural Missouri. She was only able to achieve one of those three requirements — which led to the second, and final, defeat of her political career.

During an interview with St. Louis Public Radio, McCaskill said she was optimisitc that the pendulum would swing back for Missouri Democrats. 

"Trump is a different cat when it comes to the loyalty that people feel to him, because they really feel like they're giving the finger to the government," she said. "I don't think that Trump will have the success that he has promised these people he will have. We don't have real wage growth. We have a deficit higher than ever. We have an economy that's very volatile right — and I think is going to have real bumps in the road in the coming months."

Will Attorney General Josh Hawley withstand the pressure — and political attacks?
Attorney General Josh Hawley records a Facebook Live video outside the Missouri GOP office in south St. Louis County on Aug. 30, 2018.
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio / St. Louis Public Radio

Yes.

As expected, Hawley was hit with an avalanche of scrutiny after entering the U.S. Senate contest against McCaskill. Both McCaskill’s campaign and supportive third-party groups spent millions attacking Hawley’s record on health care — and his attentiveness to the attorney general’s office.

Despite spending significantly less money than McCaskill on his own, Hawley and GOP-aligned groups were able to counterattack with an ad blitz. And Trump’s frequent visits to the state revved up the GOP base already upset over the confirmation hearings of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

Even though Hawley prevailed by 6 percentage points, the political pressure isn’t over. Republican Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft initiated an investigation over whether Hawley used public resources to support his Senate bid.

Is "dark money" becoming a bipartisan phenomenon?
A sign in support of Prop B hangs at Bridge Bread on Cherokee Street.
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio

Yes.

Even though Democrats gave a full-throated condemnation of Greitens’ use of undisclosed political money to promote his agenda, they were less vocal over how groups with unknown funding sources pumped millions into a ballot initiative to raise the minimum wage. That money from the Sixteen Thirty Fund flowed to help pass Proposition B, as its opponents decided against an active campaign.

Hard-to-trace money poured into the U.S. Senate race to either benefit or knock down Hawley and McCaskill. And while Democrats like McCaskill sought to make "dark money" a liability for the GOP, it’s indisputable that Democratic candidates and issues received a boost from murkily sourced cash as well — and may continue to as long as ballot initiatives remain a viable option to accomplish the party’s policy goals.

How will labor unions fare at the end of the year?
Union members and supporters gathered at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Hall this month to notarize and count petition signatures to block Missouri's new right-to-work law on Aug. 8, 2017.
Credit File photo I Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio

It wasn’t a perfect year for organized labor, but all things considered, unions ended up in a better position than 2017.

First the obvious: Missouri voters repealed right to work, which bars unions and employers from requiring workers to pay dues. From a practical standpoint, that prevents labor unions from suffering potential financial calamity — and, in turn, provides enough firepower to help negotiate contracts.

But there were other less-than-good developments. The Missouri General Assembly ended up passing several bills that curbed labor’s power, including a change to the state’s prevailing-wage laws. And the momentum from the August right-to-work repeal didn’t really carry into November, as only one Republican that voted for the policy in the General Assembly lost re-election.

Ultimately though, 2018 changed the paradigm for how labor issues are viewed from a statewide perspective. After Greitens won the governorship, passage of right to work became an inevitability. Now, GOP leaders are much more hesitant to forcefully pursue curbs on labor. And that, in many respects, is a big win.

Does State Auditor Nicole Galloway survive a bid for a full term?
State Auditor Nicole Galloway, left, and her Republican challenger Saundra McDowell participated in a debate in fall 2018.
Credit Carolina Hidalgo I St. Louis Public Radio

She did, but primarily because of who she faced in the general election.

Galloway squared off against Republican Saundra McDowell, an attorney from Jefferson City who faced questions about her residency and financial history. Despite spending less money than what 16th Ward Alderman Tom Oldenburg spent in 2017, McDowell came within about 6 percentage points of ousting Galloway.

It’s safe to assume that had Galloway faced a better funded Republican with fewer negatives, she may have lost.

As the lone Democratic statewide officeholder, Galloway may be facing some cajoling to run for governor in 2020. But her performance against McDowell may not scare other Democrats away. And it’s not even a certainty she wants to run in that race, as she emphasized during the campaign she wanted to serve a four-year term as auditor.

Is 2018 the year the Democrats finally gain serious ground in the Missouri General Assembly?
State Rep. Bruce Franks Jr. speaks on the last day of the legislative session in Jefferson City in May 2017.
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio

For yet another election cycle, the answer is no.

Missouri Democrats ended up gaining one seat overall, as Sen. Lauren Arthur, D-Kansas City, was able to win a Clay County seat that Republicans held since 2005. But Republicans ended up winning every single competitive Senate contest in November — including Sen. Paul Wieland winning the “Battle for JeffCo” by nearly 20 percentage points.

Things weren’t much better in the Missouri House, where neither party ended up gaining a seat. That’s a huge victory for Republicans, who had been bracing to lose some ground.

Even with the passage of a constitutional amendment shaking up state legislative redistricting, Missouri Democrats will likely remain in a deep hole for the foreseeable future.

Could relations between St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger and the county council actually get worse?
St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger celebrated a narrow victory over Democrat Mark Mantovani in August 2018.
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio

This one is a bit subjective, as there really isn’t a hard and fast way to measure the relationship between the council and Stenger. But it’s fair to say that relations didn’t really get better than 2017.

That’s because St. Louis County voters passed a slew of charter amendments the council proposed, including one which drastically reduced Stenger’s budgetary powers. And Lisa Clancy’s win over Councilman Pat Dolan ensures Stenger will have zero reliable allies on the council next year.

After yet another skirmish over the county budget, Stenger, who narrowly won a Democratic primary for re-election, is clearly getting more frustrated. On his Twitter account, Stenger is retweeting comparison of the Democratic-controlled council to how Republicans stripped an incoming Democratic governor of power in Wisconsin. That isn’t exactly a sign the two sides are close to reconciling.

Will St. Louis' political leadership enact post-Stockley policy changes?
Alderman Terry Kennedy was the sponsor of a Civilian Oversight Board for the St. Louis Police Department. In 2018, aldermen gave the board subpoena power.
Credit File photo | Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio

Yes.

St. Louis aldermen ended up giving the Civilian Oversight Board of the police department subpoena power. While that may seem like an incremental change, most experts believe civilian review boards need that power to compel police officers or witnesses to provide information. Considering prior opposition to subpoena power in St. Louis, getting that done was a significant accomplishment.

That doesn’t mean that scrutiny of the St. Louis police department is finished, even with the hiring of a new police chief. Four officers were indicted after allegedly beating an undercover police officer during a protest over Stockley’s acquittal. And there remains plenty of tension between Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner and the St. Louis Police Officers Union.

It should be noted that overall crime, through November, is down about 5.6 percent in St. Louis compared to 2017. Notably, there’s been 25 fewer homicides during the time period.

On the Trail, an occasional column, takes an analytical look at politics and policy across Missouri.

Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum