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County Republicans prepare to take St. Louis County back into GOP fold

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 6, 2011 - For Rich Magee, last year's election cycle showed promise for St. Louis County Republicans. But he said there's still work to be done.

Magee should know. Even though Republicans captured two previously Democratic state House districts and propelled John Lamping to victory in the 24th state Senatorial District, the party fell short in well-funded bids for St. Louis county executive and a St. Louis-area congressional seat. And Magee -- the mayor of Glendale and chairman of the St. Louis County Central Committee -- narrowly lost a bid for the state House against state Rep. Jeanne Kirkton, D-Webster Groves.

"We need to build on the gains that we made in this last cycle," Magee said. "We just fell a little bit short."

But Magee said St. Louis County Republicans had reasons for optimism as they gathered Saturday for their annual Lincoln Days event at the Viking Hotel and Conference Center in Sunset Hills. He said last year's election cycle could yield dividends in 2012.

"What we did was identify a lot of Republicans, a lot of conservatives that related to our message of smaller government [and] lower taxes," Magee said. "We just got to keep those people energized and build on that."

Biggest County, Bigger Opportunity?

There was a time when St. Louis County was fertile ground for Republican candidates. Republican Gene McNary won four terms as county executive, while Jim Talent -- a St. Louis County native -- performed well there in his victorious 2002 Senate bid against then-U.S. Sen. Jean Carnahan, D-Mo.

But Republicans have faced a downturn in recent election cycles. Talent lost to Democrat Claire McCaskill by a wide margin in St. Louis County in 2006, while both John Kerry and Barack Obama soundly beat their respective Republican opponents there in 2004 and 2008. in 2010, even though Roy Blunt and Tom Schweich won their bids for U.S. Senate and state auditor, respectively, both lost St. Louis County to their Democratic rivals.

Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder, a likely Republican contender against Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon, said in an interview with the Beacon that Republicans need to pay attention to St. Louis County -- even if winning it outright may prove difficult.

"I am often criticized for spending too much time here," said Kinder, who added he was not ready to announce his 2012 intentions. "None of us has carried St. Louis County for several election cycles now. We have to try and cut our losses here. But I remain convinced that there are persuadable folks here -- and that's why I spend a lot of time here listening to people."

Allen Icet, a former state legislator who now chairs the Missouri Club for Growth, said St. Louis County is not the "slam dunk" it used to be many years ago.

"The Republican Party needs to have a concentrated effort in the county," Icet said. "At the party level it's becoming clear that St. Louis County really is a battleground, which means time, money and resources need to go into St. Louis County."

One test of the GOP's local strength is this year's contest for St. Louis County assessor. St. Louis County Republicans tapped real estate executive L.K. "Chip" Wood to run against state Rep. Jake Zimmerman, D-Olivette. While Zimmerman built up a campaign finance advantage, some Republicans hope Wood's experience in real estate will appeal to county voters.

"As a Republican myself, you never want to say it's an uphill battle you can't win," said state Rep. Dwight Scharnhorst, R-Manchester, adding Wood has more experience in real estate and assessment than Zimmerman.

When asked what the party needed to do win races in St. Louis County, Wood said "Republicans need to get me elected as the assessor, so I can show everybody what a great job I can do for them."

"And they'll get used to expecting great things out of the Republican Party," Wood said. "I'm really not a politician. I think the job that I'm running for really transcends politics. We're all taxpayers. We all want to get it right. And that's what I'm focused on."

Senate Scramble

Saturday's event also provided an opportunity for the U.S. Senate campaigns of attorney Ed Martin and former Treasurer Sarah Steelman to mingle with potential St. Louis County supporters. Martin, who lives in south St. Louis, spent time shaking copious amount of hands in his hospitality suite and at dinner tables. While Steelman spent Saturday in Stoddard County, her husband -- former state legislator David Steelman -- and son Michael spent time in Sunset Hills drumming up enthusiasm for the Rolla native's bid.

David Steelman, who ran an unsuccessful race for attorney general in 1992, said a "new type of candidate" like his wife can compete in St. Louis County. He pointed to a Federal Reserve survey showing factory activity increasing in all districts, except for St. Louis.

"I believe St. Louis is fiercely independent and they want to hear somebody who is going to do something different," he said in an interview with the Beacon. "You just look at the data. What we're doing in the state, what we're doing in the country isn't working. It is not working. The spending, the special programs, the buddy deals simply aren't getting it done for people."

Martin -- who narrowly lost last year to U.S. Rep. Russ Carnahan, D-St. Louis City, in a district that includes St. Louis County -- said the region possesses plenty of people who are "active."

"Countywide, you're going to have places where they're going to vote Democrat," Martin said. "There's no doubt we have more work to do. But the key is making an argument about the policies and about the types of candidates."

The Unknowns

Steelman and Martin may not be the only candidates seeking the nomination to run against McCaskill. For instance, former Missouri Republican Party chairwoman Ann Wagner is considering running for the seat.

Asked what effect Wagner would have on the race, David Steelman said, "Sarah believes that if people want to run, they ought to run. She's not trying to cut any backroom deals to keep people out of it. If (Wagner) wants to run, she ought to run."

Martin said Wagner was a "very talented person" and "high profile."

"Getting in the race, she would get some attention," Martin said, adding he's already been to close to a dozen Lincoln Days and over 30 counties. "When people hear about who I am and what our positions are, they are -- just like last time -- saying, 'Hey, that's a winning position for our future.'"

One person who hasn't completely ruled out a Senate bid is U.S. Rep. Todd Akin, R-Town and Country. When asked about running against McCaskill, Akin said, "Those are the kind of things that you just have to kind of take a look at how things are going and what's the right thing to do.

"Obviously when it comes a year and a month, I'll have to go down to Jeff City and sign up for something," Akin said. "Unless I decide to sort of get out of the whole business."

In the past few weeks, several sitting congressmen have considered -- and decided against -- running against McCaskill. U.S. Rep. Sam Graves, R-Tarkio, toyed with the idea before deciding to stay in the U.S. House, while U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, R-Cape Girardeau, also considered running before deciding to run for re-election.

If Akin runs for re-election, he may face a tougher fight than in years past. That's because redistricting may push more Democratic parts of region into the 2nd Congressional District. Martin said it's "probable" that Akin will run in a more Democratic territory in 2012.

For his part, Akin said he's not worried about running a competitive race. And Martin said Akin will compete "very well." "As long as runs, he'll be successful," he said.

Does that mean Martin would fear an Akin bid for U.S. Senate?

"If Todd Akin gets in, I think it makes it a really competitive race," Martin said. "I don't fear anybody. If you get up worrying about the other guy in the morning, you wouldn't get up and do this. Because Claire McCaskill is well-funded, bright, experienced and knows how to fight a really hard-fought -- some would call it mean -- campaign."

"This is not something you take lightly," Martin added.

David Steelman said Talent's decision to stay out of the Senate race was a boon for his wife's Senate bid. "I think the other folks who decided not to run was kind of a testament to Sarah's strength and the broad support she has," he said.

Scharnhorst said with each passing day, it's looking more and more likely that Martin and Steelman will contend for the GOP Senate nomination.

"But I have to believe between now and the time, there will be at least one or two more candidates from somewhere," Scharnhorst said. "Right now, I'm waiting to see what the field's going to be. We'll go from there."

Obama Looming

If the subject matter of Kinder's keynote speech is any indication, Obama's bid for a second term will loom large over the elections of 2012.

Kinder spent part of his speech criticizing a number of the president's proposals, including his energy and health-care programs. He also criticized both Obama and Nixon for embracing a push to build up the nation's passenger rail infrastructure, adding that the governors of Ohio, Florida and Wisconsin pushed back against the program.

"We were told in the president's State of the Union speech that it's all about 'winning the future,'" Kinder said. "Are we going to win the future with a technology out of the 19th and early 20th century? Rail? Can they be serious about that?"

Akin said Obama's popularity declined since he ran in 2008, stating that "he was really riding a wave of popularity and he's a lot more controversial now." He said people will continue to become more aware of "serious" economic problems on the federal level.

"I believe the sheer mathematics of what's happening with the budget are going to wake people up," said Akin, a member of the House Budget Committee.

While Obama lost the vast majority of Missouri's counties in first election bid, he won St. Louis County with 59.5 percent of the vote in 2008. That's more than 100,000 votes over Republican nominee John McCain, who narrowly won the state by swamping Obama in rural parts of the state.

Presidential candidates who pour resources into states typically have a trickle-down effect on local races. McCaskill, for instance, attributed her loss to Matt Blunt in 2004 to Kerry's decision to pull of Missouri. That contrasted to 2008, when Obama's campaign poured money and resources into the state.

Magee said if the vibe of 2010 carries onto 2012, it could mean a lot for candidates in St. Louis County and beyond.

"The issue for 2012 is whether that mood in this past November will carry on into 2012," Magee said. "That's the issue. If the economy improves, if Obama's approval ratings in Missouri at all improve between now and 2012, it would be tough on a Republican statewide candidate. Because of course, the president will be on the ballot."

Jason Rosenbaum, a freelance writer in St. Louis, covers state government and politics.

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.

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