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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.

9 Questions About Missouri’s Aug. 4 Primary

Voting election illustration
Nat Thomas
St. Louis Public Radio

Tuesday will mark the first statewide election in Missouri since the coronavirus became a pandemic.

With campaign events held through Zoom, record absentee balloting and Plexiglas separating candidates on a debate stage, the coronavirus has drastically altered the election landscape.

But many things remain the same. The contests on the Aug. 4 ballot have still featured blistering attacks fueled by big money as well as long-standing antagonism between differing political factions.

So here are nine questions that could be crucial to determining the results.

Can a well-funded ballot item accomplish Missouri Democrats’ biggest policy goal?

medicaid expansion ballot question
Nat Thomas
St. Louis Public Radio

There’s a simple rule of thumb when it comes to Missouri ballot initiatives: If a proposition doesn’t have well-funded opposition, then it’s much more likely to pass.

And that’s exactly what’s happening with Amendment 2, which would expand Medicaid to roughly 250,000 people. Fueled by big donations from Missouri hospitals and national politically active nonprofits, the "Yes on Amendment 2" side has been able to flood the airwaves with television ads. The "No" side is spending money primarily on digital advertisements — but not nearly on the same scale as Medicaid expansion proponents.

If voters approve Amendment 2, it will mark a landmark policy victory for Missouri Democrats who have been pushing to expand the health care program for the poor, elderly and disabled since 2005. But a win may not be the end of the policy discussion, as it’s not out of the question that Republicans who control the Legislature may seek to have voters approve Medicaid work requirements at some point in the future.

How will voters react to St. Louis County Executive Sam Page’s COVID-19 response?

sam page
David Kovaluk
St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis County Executive Sam Page's handling of COVID-19 may be the deciding factor in whether he stays in office for two more years.

The election will mark the first time voters will get to render a verdict on how two of Missouri’s executive leaders responded to the COVID-19 pandemic. While Gov. Mike Parson is expected to win his Republican primary, St. Louis County Executive Sam Page faces formidable primary challengers.

Some of the restrictions that Page introduced on businesses and gatherings occurred before a statewide mandate, while others, like requiring masks, haven’t been adopted either statewide or in surrounding counties. These actions prompted a flurry of reaction, including accusations that Page’s moves were too restrictive — or not restrictive enough.

Still, whether Page stays in office for two more years could depend on whether county residents were ultimately satisfied with his administration’s response.

What will Black voters do in the St. Louis County executive’s contest?

james mcghee
Jason Rosenbaum
St. Louis Public Radio
Vinita Park Mayor James McGhee, seen here in this 2015 photo, is one of a number of Black municipal mayors speaking out against Page this election cycle.

Some Black political leaders have soured on Page for a number of reasons, including when the police board that he largely appointed didn’t choose Troy Doyle to become police chief. This has become an issue of contention in the final days of the campaign. A number of Black elected officials are either staying neutral in the contest or endorsing St. Louis County Assessor Jake Zimmerman or Mark Mantovani. Page does have the endorsements of some key Black political leaders, including former St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley and Councilwoman Rochelle Walton Gray, D-Black Jack.

While endorsements of Black elected officials can be a barometer of a candidate’s standing, it’s not always indicative of what Black voters will do. Even though Steve Stenger was openly hostile to some Black officials, he still won many heavily African American precincts in 2018.

And it would be impossible to discount the impact of Jamie Tolliver, the only Black and female candidate in a contest with three white men. While she hasn’t received as much financial or organizational support as Page, Zimmerman or Mantovani, her presence in the contest could matter quite a bit, especially if the outcome is close.

Could Republican voters affect the outcome of the county executive race?

county exec candidates
Jason Rosenbaum
St. Louis Public Radio
The four Democratic candidates for St. Louis County executive debate earlier this month at the Nine Network studios in St. Louis.

One of the biggest political developments in the past couple of decades involved St. Louis County transforming into an overwhelmingly Democratic voting jurisdiction. And one of the consequences of becoming heavily inclined toward a single political party is crossover voting.

That’s what happened in St. Louis in 2017, where Republicans who live in southwest St. Louis made a huge difference in pushing Lyda Krewson ahead in a fragmented Democratic primary. GOP voters also came out in droves six years ago for Stenger in his ultimately successful primary challenge of Dooley.

Both Page and Zimmerman have chastised Mantovani for donating to Republicans in the past. While Mantovani has stressed his Democratic credentials, those attacks may not inhibit someone who tends to vote for the GOP from casting a ballot for the retired business executive.

Will two incumbent county councilwomen keep their jobs?

kelli dunaway
David Kovaluk / St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis County Councilwoman Kelli Dunaway, D-Chesterfield, easily won her race on Tuesday. But Councilwoman Rochelle Walton Gray, D-Black Jack, lost to Shalonda Webb.


Councilwomen Kelli Dunaway and Rochelle Walton Gray have been key allies of Page over the past few months and are part of a four-person Democratic majority that has passed the county executive’s agenda.

Dunaway and Walton Gray are facing serious challenges for re-election. Dunaway, of Chesterfield, is squaring off against Creve Coeur Mayor Barry Glantz, who hails from a major population center in the 2nd District. Dunaway is promising to fight for progressive values in the heavily Democratic district, while Glantz says he would be a consensus builder on the council.

Meanwhile, Walton Gray is facing Shalonda Webb and Mark Behlmann in the 4th County Council District that includes a big chunk of north St. Louis County. Walton Gray is part of a formidable political faction that’s elected people to state and local posts. Webb has nabbed a number of endorsements, while Behlmann is well known for his time on the Hazelwood School Board.

While neither the 2nd or the 4th District is expected to turn red this November, the council’s operations could change dramatically if Dunaway or Walton Gray lose.

Can Cori Bush persuade Black voters to go against Lacy Clay?

lacy clay july 2020
Jason Rosenbaum
St. Louis Public Radio
Congressman Lacy Clay, D-University City, is squaring off against Cori Bush in his bid for an 11th term.

The second bout between U.S. Rep. Lacy Clay and Cori Bush in Missouri’s 1st District primary is getting more attention than two years ago, primarily because Bush has much more money at her disposal. It’s also getting a national look because of a trend of Bernie Sanders-aligned candidates defeating long-term incumbents.

Clay has pointed out that he’s in a different situation than other colleagues who lost to progressive challengers. Those white incumbents, such as Joseph Crowley and Elliot Engel, represented districts that were becoming less white — and Clay has consistently received lots of votes from the 1st District's Black residents.

So for Bush to win, she’ll need to get much more support in places like north St. Louis and north St. Louis County — places where most of the district’s African American population lives. If she can persuade people who have voted for either Clay or his father for more than 50 years to vote for her, then she could put an end to one of the longest-running political dynasties in modern Missouri history.

Who will succeed Jamilah Nasheed in the Missouri Senate?

State Sen. Jamilah Nasheed
Kae Petrin
St. Louis Public Radio
Sen. Jamilah Nasheed will leave the Missouri Senate after 2020 ends due to term limits.

Of all of the state legislative contests this cycle, the one that’s attracted the most activity is the Democratic primary in the 5th Senate District — which encompasses parts of St. Louis.

There are six candidates in the race, three of whom are widely considered to be the top contenders to succeed Jamilah Nasheed: Michelle Sherod, Alderwoman Megan Green and state Rep. Steve Roberts. And those three contenders are spending a lot of money on mailers, canvassers and phone work in a district where contacting voters directly makes a bigger difference than TV or radio ads.

Sherod is hoping that a diverse slate of endorsers, including Nasheed, will push her to Jefferson City. Roberts, whose father and uncle are well-known fixtures in St. Louis politics, is banking on his experience in the Missouri House being a compelling pitch to voters. And Green could benefit from strong support in wards that supported her Board of Aldermen president bid, especially ones in south and central St. Louis that typically turn out a lot of voters.

Also worth watching is the Democratic primary in the north St. Louis County-based 13th District, where Democrats Angela Mosley and Reps. Tommie Pierson Jr. and Alan Green are seeking to succeed term-limited Sen. Gina Walsh, D-Bellefontaine Neighbors.

How will Conservative Caucus candidates fare?

bill eigel
Carolina Hidalgo
St. Louis Public Radio
Sen. Bill Eigel, R-Weldon Spring, is one of a number of Conservative Caucus-backed candidates facing challenges in GOP primaries this cycle.

The 5th and 13th District contests are anomalies from a statewide perspective, as most of the competitive primaries for Senate seats are on the GOP side.

One of the big storylines that’s been brewing for a while is whether candidates backed by the so-called Conservative Caucus can prevail. That caucus’ PAC has spent huge amounts of money across the state to either pump up or criticize its endorsed candidates — which, in turn, is being counteracted with cash from interests that are backing other candidates.

One member of the Conservative Caucus, St. Charles County Sen. Bill Eigel, is facing a competitive primary for re-election against fellow Republican Eric Wulff. That contest has turned decidedly negative, with both candidates launching attacks against one another either through the mail or on TV.

Not only will Tuesday’s contests determine whether the Conservative Caucus will be at full strength when the Legislature comes back into session next year, but it will also show if they’re ready for the expected main event of state Senate races in November: making sure Sen. Andrew Koenig, R-Manchester, is able to hold off Rep. Deb Lavender, D-Kirkwood.

Will an avalanche of criticism from Republicans help Kim Gardner’s re-election campaign?

St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner takes the oath of office at the Old Courthouse in January 2017.
Carolina Hidalgo
St. Louis Public Radio
Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner is taking heat for charging two lawyers with unlawful use of a weapon for brandishing guns at protesters.

In recent weeks, Republicans have unleashed a torrent of criticism against Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner for charging a pair of lawyers for brandishing guns at demonstrators marching by their Central West End house. That move faced condemnation from high-level GOPers like Sen. Josh Hawley and even a pardon promise from Parson.

But in some respects, that vocal criticism could help Gardner’s re-election campaign against fellow Democrat Mary Pat Carl. Those GOP jabs could persuade progressive white voters to side with Gardner, which, paired with support from Black voters, could be enough for the incumbent to outflank Carl.

For her part, Carl is contending that Gardner’s performance as circuit attorney isn’t worthy of another term. And it will remain to be seen if that message resonates, or whether commentary from people who live far away from St. Louis will affect the outcome.

Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum

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

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