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On the Trail, an occasional column by St. Louis Public Radio political reporter Jason Rosenbaum, takes an analytical look at politics and policy across Missouri.

Asked and answered: the five big questions of Missouri's election

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 7, 2012 - If there was one word to describe Tuesday for Missouri Republicans, it may be “disappointing.”

That term may be an understatement. Even though GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney won the Show Me State by a significant margin, U.S. Rep. Todd Akin suffered a catastrophic defeat to the once-vulnerable U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill.

Democrats managed to win four out of the five statewide offices, including resounding re-elections for Gov. Jay Nixon and Attorney General Chris Koster. Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder – a Republican whose political career seemed to be in serious jeopardy – was the only GOP statewide candidate who prevailed.

While weary politicos are still processing last night’s results, this highly caffeinated reporter is alert enough to answers the five big questions posed in an earlier Campaign Trail. The results show that Missouri politics doesn’t always follow a rigid partisan course.

How long are Mitt Romney’s coattails?

The former Massachusetts governor won decisively in Missouri; With almost 54 percent of the vote, he trounced President Barack Obama. But that overwhelming victory in Missouri wasn’t enough to help Republican statewide candidates.

Not even close.

The most jarring example was the U.S. Senate contest. Not only did McCaskill receive more votes and win by a larger margin than Romney, she managed to swamp Akin both in swing areas and traditional Republican territory. As she exulted in her victory speech Tuesday night, she finally won rural Missouri.

Things weren’t better for other GOP statewide candidates, who had discussed quite openly how Romney would pull them to victory. Nixon and Koster received more votes and won by bigger margins than Romney. And the presidential contest wasn’t enough to help House Speaker Pro Tem Shane Schoeller, R-Willard, win secretary of state over state Rep. Jason Kander, D-Kansas City, or give state Rep. Cole McNary, R-Chesterfield, the edge over Treasurer Clint Zweifel.

Interestingly, Kinder won by a larger margin than he did in either 2004 or 2008. That came despite unflattering news coverage about his traveling expenses and his acquaintance with a stripper – episodes exploited in ads by both his opponents in both the primary and general. Still, the Cape Girardeau native still received fewer votes and won by a smaller margin than Romney.

But Romney’s coattails almost certainly helped on a state legislative level.  For instance, his strong performance in rural parts of the states almost certainly  helped Republicans Gary Romine and Doug Libla win in highly competitive state Senate contests. Both were running in districts in southeast Missouri

Romney’s presence may have played a role in knocking state Reps. Paul Quinn, D-Monroe City, and Tom Shively, D-Shelbyville, out of the Missouri Legislature. Both legislators represented northeast Missouri, a traditionally Democratic part the state that’s trended more toward the GOP in recent years.

Will wary Republicans vote for Akin?

No, in a word.

To be sure, it would take an exhaustive examination of the results to provide a definitive answer. But a closer look at McCaskill’s victory shows the depth of Republicans' rejection of Akin – including in traditional GOP strongholds.

For one thing, McCaskill easily outflanked Akin in key swing areas like Jefferson, Buchanan and Platte counties. Romney won all three of those counties without difficulty.

More notably, McCaskill actually won St. Charles County and Greene County – two of the state’s staunchest GOP strongholds. To put things in perspective: Pundits praised McCaskill in 2006 merely for keeping Republican margins down in those areas. Few expected her to win those counties outright -- as well as other outstate outposts like Nodaway, Audrain and Andrew counties.

Those results suggest that plenty of Republicans may have cast their votes for Romney -- and for McCaskill. Some GOP voters may have made a protest vote of sorts by voting for Libertarian Jonathan Dine. His 6 percent haul was one of the best showing by a statewide third party candidate since Ross Perot in 1996.

"In this case, she really worked the state," said Dave Robertson, a political science professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. "As she did in 2006, she worked in rural areas to at least keep down the margin - if not to win some of the rural counties. And she was able to do that in '06 with the tailwind of a Democratic tide behind her." 

"This time, she was going against the grain, but against not very well known opponent in Dine and one deeply - if not fatally - damaged opponent in Todd Akin," he added. 

Missouri Republicans have to wonder whether one of the candidates that took a pass on running against McCaskill – such as former U.S. Sen. Jim Talent, U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, R-Cape Girardeau, or U.S. Rep. Sam Graves, R-Tarkio – would have fared better. But it's hard to make an argument that another candidate would have performed worse.

Does big money matter?

The answer here isn't cut and dried. On the one hand, huge donations from wealthy individual donors weren't enough to propel House Speaker Pro Tem Shane Schoeller or GOP attorney Ed Martin to victory. And even though Republican gubernatorial nominee Dave Spence invested roughly $6.5 million of his own money to his campaign, he still lost decisively to Nixon.

Tuesday’s result ended up validating Democratic consultant Richard Martin’s prediction: He said earlier this fall that the big story of the national election could be how the influx of money did little to change the composition of government. That proved true on a state level in Missouri: The status quo reigned with a Democratic governor and a huge Republican legislature.

But even if money wasn’t the decisive factor, that didn’t mean it didn’t matter.

For instance, House and Senate Republicans almost certainly benefited from their huge financial advantage in a number of races. And while retired financier Rex Sinquefield gave prodigiously to unsuccessful candidates like Schoeller, he also gave directly and indirectly to candidates who won including Koster and numerous state legislative hopefuls. Sinquefield, who is also a donor to the Beacon, bankrolled a successful ballot initiative to end state control of the St. Louis Police Department.

Both Koster and Nixon assuredly benefited from direct contributions from national associations. Nixon received more than $2 million from the Democratic Governors Association, while Koster banked nearly $800,000 from the Democratic Attorneys General Association.

Money doesn't guarantee victory, but it doesn’t hurt to have it.

Can Democrats gain ground in the legislature?

This one’s technically a split decision. With state Rep. Scott Sifton’s victory over state Sen. Jim Lembke, Senate Democrats go into 2013 with two more members than in the previous two years.

But that may be the extent of good news for Democrats in the heavily Republican legislature. Republicans actually won four seats in the Missouri House, taking 110 out of a possible 163. That margin could have been even higher if Republicans had prevailed in tightly contested races in south St. Louis County, Jefferson County, mid-Missouri and the Kansas City suburbs.

Besides wins by Romine and Libla, state Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, won over state Rep. Mary Still, D-Columbia. With his victory, Schaefer became the first Republican ever to win re-election in a state Senate district that included Boone County.

Things aren’t looking promising for Democrats in 2014. Republicans could gain as many as two seats back if they prevail in the mid-Missouri's 10th District or Jefferson County's 22nd District. And Republicans could potentially set their sights on those House districts they narrowly lost this time around.

While their legislative strength may be a thin silver lining for downcast Republicans, they may find solace in the fact that it's now a whole lot easier to override Nixon’s vetoes. And it makes it much harder for the Democratic governor to pursue policies wildly divergent from the GOP legislature's.

How red is Missouri?

Despite the projections, PACs or polls, Missouri's government will basically be unchanged, with leaders from both major parties holding some of the state’s highest offices.

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Democrats will have a U.S. senator and four statewide officeholders, including a governor with high approval ratings. But Republicans will also have a U.S. senator, a solid majority in the U.S. House delegation, two statewide officeholders and huge margins in the General Assembly.

Perhaps U.S. Rep. Lacy Clay, D-St. Louis, put it best on Tuesday: He told the Beacon that Missourians “are really independent voters” who are “really selective about their choices of who they want to represent them at different levels of government.”

Kander said that Tuesday’s results indicate that “Missourians are not as partisan as some of their politicians are. They look at each race individually and they make a decision about each race."

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

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

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.