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Government, Politics & Issues

As top Missouri Democrats gather here Saturday, hottest talk may be off stage

Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick
Bill Greenblatt | UPI | 2013 photo

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Although Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick will be the headliner at this Saturday’s annual Jefferson-Jackson Dinner downtown, the real attraction for Missouri Democrats could well be the dinner-table talk about the direction of the state party.

Patrick will be joined by the state's top Democrats for what is traditionally the party's top fundraising event of the year. Always held in St. Louis, this year's dinner is at the Renaissance Grand hotel.

But message, more than money, may be high on the menu.

“This last legislative session, in particular, re-invigorated the Democratic base,’’ said local Democratic consultant Mike Kelley, the state party’s former executive director. “The best ally we’ve had has been this ridiculous Missouri legislature.”

“It was the rational people versus the conspiracy folks,’’ Kelley continued, saying that the public saw the huge Republican majority – aka “the conspiracy folks” -- talk far more about guns and drivers licenses than about jobs or education.

The just-completed session also highlighted the predicament facing Missouri Democrats.

The party holds four of the state’s six statewide offices, including governor, and scored a major victory last fall when Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., won re-election by a huge margin in one of the nation’s most closely watched contests. Gov. Jay Nixon  garnered the ballot's second-highest number of votes as he trounced his Republican rival.

But in that same election, the Missouri Republican Party managed to amass huge veto-proof majorities in the state House and Senate. By controlling redistricting in 2011, the GOP also now holds six of the state’s eight remaining congressional seats.

During the just-completed legislative session, Democratic legislators often were an afterthought as far as Republican legislative leaders were concerned , since Democratic votes usually weren't needed to pass a bill.

Nixon emphasizes political compromise over combat

Even so, Nixon -- the titular head of the Missouri Democratic Party -- generally has sought to be a conciliatory figure in the state Capitol. Even in his re-election campaign in 2012, Nixon often avoided using the word “Democrat,’’ preferring to focus on policy issues rather than political points.

At Democratic gatherings for years, it’s usually McCaskill who launches the partisan jabs, while Nixon often highlights his interest in bipartisan support.

One of Nixon’s last truly partisan stump speeches could arguably be from his first Jefferson-Jackson dinner as governor, in 2009, when he exhorted Democrats to help him beef up their numbers in the General Assembly in the 2010 elections.

Republican legislative leaders publicly condemned Nixon’s remarks, which he has rarely repeated since. (And as a bloc, Democratic legislative candidates got clobbered in 2010.)

At recent Democratic political events, other statewide officials – notably Attorney General Chris Koster – have shown up to offer high-profile support.

Since his re-election, some activists believe that Nixon has shifted his political focus because he can’t seek re-election in 2016. His options are either to run for the U.S. Senate seat now held by Republican Roy Blunt or to look for some other post in Washington.

Nixon already has made clear that he, like McCaskill, would likely support Hillary Rodham Clinton should she run for the White House in 2016.  Both Missouri Democrats are expected to make any short list for their party’s No. 2 spot or for key Cabinet positions in any Clinton administration.

One Democratic activist said privately that Nixon appears to be “transitioning to the ‘Vilsack’ model” – a reference to former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, a Democrat on several vice presidential short lists in recent elections and currently the U.S. agriculture secretary for President Barack Obama.

McCaskill seeking more combative state party?

Now, there appears to be some behind-the-scenes rumblings that McCaskill and Koster, among others, would like to see a feistier state Democratic operation in hopes of improving the party’s showing in the 2014 legislative races, and preparing for 2016.

McCaskill, by the way, effectively ran the Missouri Democratic Party for several years, from mid-2004 – shortly before she lost a bid for governor -- until Nixon’s election in 2008.

Although she ceded party operations to Nixon after he became governor, McCaskill – who had to build her own statewide apparatus for last year’s re-election bid -- may be preparing to flex her power in state politics once again. 

She has offered some hints with her recent jabs at Republican state legislative leaders. But the more immediate target may be Jackson County Executive Mike Sanders, who was just elected a few months ago to a second two-year term as Missouri Democratic Party chairman.

Although on good terms with Nixon and McCaskill, Sanders may step down early to focus on his own likely re-election bid in 2014. Sanders also is believed to be considering a statewide run in 2016.

Sanders’ departure could come as soon as this fall, some party activists say.

The Kansas City Star reported a week ago that McCaskill and Nixon disagree on the direction of the party, with McCaskill advocating a more outspoken chairman – such as former Democratic Party executive director Roy Temple, a verbal firebrand who ran operations for much of the 1990s under then-Gov. Mel Carnahan.

McCaskill and Nixon are playing down any talk of a split, as are party activists – all of whom emphasize that Sanders is a popular figure in Democratic ranks and isn’t expected to leave for months.

In a statement, McCaskill said there was no tug of war. “We are all on the same team, and everyone is hopeful we can come to a consensus pick for a new chair,” she said. “I’m sure we can.”

Nixon told the Beacon earlier this week that party issues haven’t been much in his thoughts, as he considers legislation on his desk awaiting action.

“I haven’t had a chance to spend a lot on it in the last few days. I’ve been pretty busy,’’ the governor said. “I do thank County Executive Sanders for his service and his continued service. I do look forward to seeing folks on Saturday.”

State Democratic Party executive director Joe Duffy said in a statement late Thursday, "Mike Sanders is the chairman and, after winning five of six statewide races last fall, there’s widespread support for him remaining in that role for as long as he’d like."

"When Chairman Sanders does eventually decide to move on, the statewide elected officials will work with members of the state committee to determine his successor," Duffy continued. "But any discussion of that at this point is premature."

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