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Missouri Republicans say their message is fine - it's the delivery that needs tweaking

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 8, 2011 - When U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., was standing in line in Kirkwood to cast her own ballot early Tuesday, at least two other voters quietly told her that they were Republicans and voting for her.

That was one of the early signs that her re-election bid was going to up-end the plans of national and state Republican leaders out to oust her.

As Missouri Republicans mull over the mixed election results, veteran GOP consultant John Hancock zeroes in on the obvious.

Missouri looks a whole lot more Republican when it is chopped up, than it is when it's a statewide election, he said.

By that, he's comparing the GOP's legislative and congressional success with the party's apparent statewide weakness.

For example: The good news for Republicans Tuesday was that the Missouri House gained four more GOP seats, giving Republicans a historic 110-53 edge one more than the 109 needed to override any gubernatorial vetoes.

Republicans also retained six of the state's eight congressional seats and 24 of Missouri's 34 state Senate seats.

The bad news for Republicans was pretty much everything else.

Republican leaders differ over what went wrong -- and what needs to be changed -- to avoid a repeat of what had been expected to be a strong 2012 GOP showing statewide. And it may be a while before any consensus emerges.

First, the facts:

Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney won handily in Missouri, although his margin over President Barack Obama was a bit lower 9.6 percentage points -- than what some had expected.

But only one other statewide Republican veteran Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder was victorious when Missouri's vote-counting was complete.

We had great momentum with Romney that ran into a brick wall with the next race,'' Hancock said. Most of the down-ballots never recovered from that.

That wall'' was the nationally watched battle between McCaskill and Republican rival Todd Akin, which centered at times publicly and always privately on Akin's August comment that victims of legitimate rape'' rarely get pregnant because their bodies can prevent it.

Women voters motivated by Akin's 'rape' comment

Although billed for weeks as a likely neck-and-neck contest, McCaskill won it in a 15 percentage-point blowout the largest victory among any of Missouri's statewide battles and on par with the huge GOP showing of U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt in 2010.

Akin said Wednesday on former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee's radio show that he had suffered "a real skunking'' at the polls.

Exit poll results hint that the army of voters who swept McCaskill back into office was predominantly female. The exit poll conducted by the Associated Press concluded that close to six of every 10 women who cast a ballot in Missouri's U.S. Senate race voted for McCaskill.

That's a higher percentage of the women's vote than McCaskill received in 2006, according to that year's exit polls.

Most of the pro-McCaskill women interviewed for the exit poll this year also said that reproductive rights had been a big motivator. Nearly two-thirds of the voters, women and men, said that Akin's comment on rape had some bearing on their vote. The AP reported that those voters also "overwhelmingly sided with McCaskill by a rate of almost 3 to 1."

Missouri's male voters were almost evenly split between the two candidates, the poll said, breaking the traditional scenario in which a majority of male voters lean Republican.

St. Charles County Democratic Party chairman Morton Todd speculates that it was Republican women who likely gave McCaskill an unheard-of 7,000-vote edge in a county that's usually solid Republican.

She outpaced Gov. Jay Nixon, a fellow Democrat long popular with Republicans, who carried St. Charles County by only 700 votes.

A third Democrat, Attorney General Chris Koster, also carried St. Charles County by about 6,000 votes. Koster is a former Republican and is likely to cite his popularity on GOP turf as one reason Democrats should line up behind him when he makes an expected bid for governor in 2016 when Nixon leaves office.

The election-night story in Jefferson County, key swing territory, exemplified the two parties' dilemmas. The county's voters favored almost every statewide Democrat but split for Kinder and Romney.

Jefferson County voters also split on the legislative contests, with about half going to Republicans and the other half to Democrats.

Voters split tickets for Romney, McCaskill

Nixon's race, No. 3 on Missouri's ballots, did strengthen the wall. He defeated Republican Dave Spence statewide by 12 percentage points. (Nixon was Missouri's top vote-getter on Tuesday, capturing 500 more votes than McCaskill.)

McCaskill communications director Caitlin Legacki emphasized that the senator's success was the result of hard work. "On Election Day alone, the Missouri Democratic Party Coordinated Campaign sent out over 5,000 volunteers who knocked on just under 400,000 doors and made 300,000 phone calls," the spokeswoman said.

Other numbers also are revealing, highlighting the disconnect between the presidential contest and all the other Missouri contests, thus dooming most of the Republican statewide hopefuls:

  • McCaskill won 270,000 more votes than President Barack Obama, which means those additional McCaskill voters favored Romney or one of the other third-party candidates instead defections that Republicans had not expected.
  • Akin received 410,000 fewer votes than Romney, a huge dropoff. Spence's dropoff was almost as bad: 320,000 fewer votes than the GOP presidential nominee.
  • As many as 114,000 Missourians cast ballots for president and then left the voting booth without voting in all of the other statewide contests. That included 31,000 who skipped the U.S. Senate contest and roughly 100,000 who skipped Missouri's closest contest, for secretary of state. The Democratic victor, Jason Kander, defeated Republican Shane Schoeller by 33,000 votes.

Hancock was a consultant for Schoeller and admits being particularly disappointed with the southwest Missourian's loss. Hancock notes that he lost his own first bid for secretary of state, in 1992, by a similar margin.
Hancock also had worked for the Republican who had been favored to win the GOP U.S. Senate primary last summer wealthy St. Louis businessman John Brunner but lost to Akin.

And perhaps not surprisingly, Hancock, a former executive director of the Missouri Republican Party, contends that state party leaders may have witnessed an overall election result that reflected, in part, their own early missteps by failing to steer primary voters to the stronger general-election contenders.

If the state's conservative Republican leaders had spoken loudly and forcefully during the (Senate) primary, things may have been different,'' he said. Once the die was cast, I don't think there was anything that could have been done.

After the furor broke over Akin's comment on rape, there was polling data all over the place, Hancock said. My own sense was that there was a structural gap that developed in that race that never got better and probably widened near the end.

Tilley: Focus more on urban voters

Former state House Speaker Steve Tilley, R-Perryville and now a lobbyist, says that the focus on the McCaskill/Akin and Nixon/Spence matchups which he contended had unusual dynamics -- may distract Republican leaders from what he sees as the real structural problem facing the party's statewide efforts.

Tilley praised the overall quality of the GOP statewide candidates on Tuesday's ballot, but said they couldn't surmount the fact that we underperform in St. Louis County, Jackson County, St. Louis city and Kansas City. When you lose by such huge margins there, it's hard to make them up.

Tilley added, That's something structurally our party is going to need to look at. 'Is our message getting out there?' or 'Are we not doing a good job of reaching out to the cities?'

We've got to find a way to reach out to minorities and do better in the cities,'' Tilley said. I think we've got a good message for them. Economic opportunity, living within our means, many of the social issues.

It's a problem nationally,'' he continued. I don't think Republicans are going to win nationally when you lose 95 percent of the African-American vote and 70 percent of the Hispanic vote.

I think the Republican Party can do it, but they need to do some soul-searching and figure it out.

Tilley had dropped out in 2011 from an expected race for lieutenant governor for personal reasons. Based on what happened Tuesday, he observed that he wasn't sure he would have won.

Tilley added that Missouri Republicans shouldn't ignore their successes. He singled out Kinder as "a warrior. He took a punch and he got up from the mat'' after the August 2011 controversy over his acquaintance with a former stripper.

Tilley said the GOP also should be rightfully proud of its significant gains in the Missouri House.

Jones: Build GOP 'farm team' of candidates

His successor, state House Speaker Tim Jones, R-Eureka, is indeed proud of his party's stronger representation in the House. And Jones thinks that there are lessons in that success to help the GOP improve its statewide showing.

The House Republican Campaign Committee and its state Senate counterpart have been working for a decade, said Jones, to make sure that quality candidates are recruited, their campaigns monitored and proper funding obtained.

The focus is on people who share our principles,'' Jones said. Once elected, he continued, such candidates have helped enact aggressive and bold reforms" in the General Assembly.

The problem, said Jones, is that our 'bench' needs to be rebuilt on the statewide level.

Several of this year's GOP statewide candidates, he said, had not planned on running for office but stepped forward when the party needed them because no veteran candidates were available.

You had guys who left the House earlythey stepped forward and they ran for those races because we needed somebody, Jones said. They did a fantastic job in the short time they had.

A better approach, he said, would be to assemble a strong farm team that is preparing years out to run for office. That is traveling the state for years and is raising money and meeting the major donors for years and is building a grassroots team for years.

In the case of the HRCC, Jones said that candidates already are being recruited for 2014.

On a statewide level, he continued, If we're going to be competitive in 2016, we need to be preparing for those races now and building a farm team.

The upshot, contended Jones, is that the GOP's challenge is organizational and not philosophical. The party's message is strong, he said. It's just the delivery that needs work.

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.

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