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Every seat counts: Battle over MO Legislature is low profile but high stakes

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: September 29, 2008 - In some ways, this is a dream year for political junkies, with spirited, competitive presidential and gubernatorial races plus an array of talented politicians vying for the other statewide offices. In fact, for some candidates, this election cycle might be just too much of a good thing.

In this politics-rich year, the highly localized races for the Missouri Legislature are flying for the most part very much under the radar. Yet the political composition of the Missouri House and Senate will be very important for whoever wins the governor's race. It's the Legislature that will be implementing -- or stonewalling -- the governor's program. For now, the Republicans are working to maintain their majority while the Democrats hope to make a major dent.

Both parties angling for victory

No one knows how the turmoil and public outrage surrounding the $700 billion bailout and the overall economic bad times will help or hurt the candidates, from the gubernatorial level on down. Majority Floor Leader Steven Tilley says blaming the economic problems on GOP policies won't play well with Missouri's voters.

"Republicans probably will catch some blame, but Democrats will, too," he says. "They've been in control of Congress for two years and things haven't gotten better; they've gotten worse."

Tilley acknowledges that Nixon is leading in the polls but says Hulshof "still has time to make up the difference." Tilley adds that Republicans expect GOP presidential nominee Sen. John McCain to win in Missouri because McCain "appeals more to the average voter" when compared to Democratic nominee Sen. Barack Obama.

His views are countered by plenty of upbeat Democrats, including state Rep. Rachel Storch, the chair of the House Democratic Campaign Committee, which grooms and supports candidates in the party's ongoing effort to reclaim a House majority. Storch says the energy generated by Obama's presidential campaign is trickling down to Missouri, and she says that will help her party's candidates make strong showings at the polls in November.

It's anyone's guess, though, how long the presidential or gubernatorial coattails will be for the other candidates on the ballot. In this election, voters no longer will be allowed to vote a straight ticket -- that is, for all Democrats or for all Republicans. Instead voters will have to vote individually for each candidate. In the past, straight-ticket voting has apparently helped Democrats more so they may have the most to lose.

Battleground St. Charles?

A political party needs 82 votes to control the Missouri House. Republicans now control 89 seats, the Democrats hold 70, and there are four vacancies.

Surprisingly, the Democrats had looked to St. Charles County, normally a Republican stronghold, as a place to make gains. One seat that had looked promising to them was the 18th District, which was vacant because the Republican there, former Rep. Tom Dempsey, was elected to the Missouri Senate in a special election a year ago.

Unfortunately for them, their best hope, Tim Swope, a former county sheriff and former St. Charles police chief, decided he no longer wanted to run. His name will be on the ballot, but the victor is likely to be Anne Zerr, the GOP candidate who was director of public policy under former County Executive Joe Ortwerth.

Democrats see hope in another St. Charles County race: the one between incumbent GOP Rep. Vicki Schneider and Democrat Kenny Biermann in the 17th District. In their last match, Schneider won by fewer than 300 votes, and Democrats hope that Biermann will even the score this time around, partly because it's the district that Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill won by 51 percent in her race against GOP candidate Jim Talent. 

A Hot Race

Perhaps the hottest race in the House is in the 24th District, where Democrat Chris Kelly is running against incumbent GOP Rep. Ed Robb, both from Columbia. A former House member and former chair of the Budget Committee, Kelly has raised about $150,000 and hopes to get an extra lift from voters who have registered as a result of Obama's presidential campaign.

Democrats also are hopeful of winning open seats in the House's 85th and 91st districts.

In the 85th, in Affton, Democrats are counting on Vicki Englund to win over GOP candidate Cloria Brown. But Tilley, a Republican, says Brown, who has knocked on 7,000 doors in the district, has a good chance of winning.

In the 91st District, Democrats are staking their hopes on Jeanne Kirkton, who carried the district in her unsuccessful state Senate race against Michael Gibbons in 2004. Working in Kirkton's favor, it seems, is the fact that the GOP candidate, Randy Jotte, may be a little too conservative on issues such as stem cell research in a relatively moderate district. But Tilley insists that Jotte "is a good candidate."

The "Bluing" of the Suburbs?

That Democrats like Biermann and Kirkton in St. Charles and St. Louis counties even have a shot at winning in normally Republican-leaning districts says a lot about the changing suburban demographics. Republicans used to have such a grip on St. Louis County, for example, that the party's statewide success often hinged on winning big there. But Democrats have held the position of county executive since 1990 when Buzz Westfall was first elected. Charles Dooley, the current county executive, is the first African American to hold the position, reflecting in part a change in the county's racial makeup. Blacks, who made up about 14 percent of the county's population in 1990, now represent 22 percent.

As Democrats have learned in the 91st District, where Jotte and Kirkton are sparring, suburban voters aren't as glued as they once were to the traditional GOP positions on hot-button issues. That explains why Kirkton thinks she can make headway by emphasizing her position on stem-cell research. She believes that her support for such research better reflects suburban district's voters.

This shift among voters is what Governing magazine calls the "bluing of the suburbs." It mentions several suburban counties where the GOP lost ground to Democrats between 1984 and 2004. In St. Louis County, for example, Republicans captured 64 percent of the presidential vote in 1984, but only 45 percent four years ago. Likewise, in Fairfax County, Va., the party's share of the presidential vote dipped to 46 percent four years ago, compared to 63 percent in 1984.

The magazine stresses that this shift is by no means universal, pointing to voter allegiance to GOP candidates in suburban regions of the South and the Southwest. Moreover, it notes that President George W. Bush was victorious four years ago in all but three of the nation's 100 fastest growing counties.

On the other side of the state, in the Kansas City area, Democrats see hope in the candidacy of Democrat Terry Stone in a race against incumbent GOP Rep. Jerry Nolte in the 33rd district. Stone is reported to have knocked on 13,000 doors in a strong effort to unseat Nolte. In addition, in the 36th District, Democrats are optimistic that Barbara Lanning of Lawson, Mo., can beat incumbent GOP Rep. Bob Nance of Excelsior Springs in a district where about 55 percent of voters are said to be Democrats and where McCaskill won with 58 percent of the vote.

Tilley also expects GOP challenger Thom Van Vleck to wage a strong challenge to incumbent Democratic Rep. Rebecca McClanahan in the 2nd District. Tilley says this is a Republican-leaning district and "we think we have the right candidate to pull an upset there." He also predicts that McCain will win by as much as 30 percent of the vote in that district.

No Change In Senate?

Analysts don't expect much change in the 34-member state Senate, where Republicans control the majority with 20 seats. But Tilley says perhaps a dozen House races could be determined by between 200 and 300 votes. Still, both he and Storch are holding their cards close, refusing to say for sure how many seats they expect their parties to win on Nov. 4.

Though Tilley says McCain will win in Missouri and he had predicted before the primary that Republicans would pick up a few House seates, he hedged a bit this time on how many. His only sure position is that the House will remain in GOP hands.

Storch, meanwhile, expects the party to do well but says there are too many variable to talk about the outcome.

"We're going to pick up some," she says. "It's just a question of how many. We're very excited about all the new people, especially the young people who've registered to vote."

Legislature by the numbers

163 Seats in the Missouri House, all up for reelection this year

  • 89 Number of House seats controlled by GOP now
  • 77 Number of House incumbents facing no opposition in general election

34 Number of seats in the Missouri Senate

  • 20 Number of Senate seats controlled by GOP
  • 17 Number of seats in Missouri Senate up for re-election

Robert Joiner has carved a niche in providing informed reporting about a range of medical issues. He won a Dennis A. Hunt Journalism Award for the Beacon’s "Worlds Apart" series on health-care disparities. His journalism experience includes working at the St. Louis American and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where he was a beat reporter, wire editor, editorial writer, columnist, and member of the Washington bureau.

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