Trump Fatigue Could Spur Realignment In Traditionally Republican Parts Of St. Louis County
While the historically Republican stronghold of Eureka isn’t expected to transform into a Democratic haven anytime soon, area resident Sally Sandy said she’s noticed a lot more Democrats around her are getting energized and organized ahead of the Nov. 3 election.
“Immediately after Trump’s election, I thought I was alone in a sea of fish that were not like me,” Sandy said of the western St. Louis County suburb. “And a lot of us, especially women, found each other. And immediately we found that we were not alone.”
Sandy’s observation is part of a growing body of evidence that previously Republican-leaning parts of the St. Louis region are becoming more amenable to Democratic candidates. It's a trend that a lot of people in the St. Louis region and around the country are watching closely.
This political shift, mainly attributable to backlash over President Donald Trump’s policies and style, could be a big reason the 2nd Congressional District clash between incumbent Republican Ann Wagner and Democrat Jill Schupp is one of the most competitive races in the nation.
It could also be why some state legislative seats, such as the 15th Senate District, that were once out of reach for Democrats are now considered toss-ups.
“I think that for lots of different reasons the Republican Party of the Bushes, John McCain and Mitt Romney was a more attractive party to some of these folks than the party of Donald Trump is,” said Kyle Kondik, the managing editor of Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball, which monitors and handicaps elections.
Evidence of change
There’s more than just anecdotal evidence that previously Republican areas of St. Louis County are becoming more Democratic.
Two years ago, U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill got higher percentages of the vote than Jason Kander in places like Missouri River Township, which includes Town and Country and Des Peres. She also won Queeny Township, which GOP Sen. Roy Blunt narrowly won in 2016 in his race against Kander. That township includes Valley Park, Twin Oaks and Winchester.
Democrats have also gained ground in Missouri House seats that were previously Republican, most notably when Democrat Trish Gunby won the 99th District last year over Lee Ann Pitman.
And Democrat Cort VanOstran basically tied with Wagner in St. Louis County during the 2018 election cycle. While the 2nd District includes more than just western St. Louis County, Schupp said VanOstran’s strong campaign, which received virtually no help from outside Democratic groups, was telling.
“I think that we’ve seen that things have changed over the years,” Schupp said. “There is a real enthusiasm for change in this district.”
There are a number of theories about why previously Republican parts of St. Louis County are getting bluer. Much of the shift is attributed to Trump, who has seen his poll numbers sag across the nation in suburbs with middle- to upper-income white voters with college degrees.
“The Republican Party brand in these kinds of districts across the country, whether you're in suburban St. Louis or Kansas City or Indianapolis or Columbus or Dallas-Fort Worth ... a lot of similar kinds of districts are moving similar kinds of ways,” Kondik said.
And while much of central and western St. Louis County is still largely white, Ballwin resident Sue Abuzeide noted that the area is becoming more racially diverse, which generally helps Democrats. Abuzeide’s son-in-law, for instance, is Moroccan, and she pointed out that immigrants from a number of different racial and ethnic backgrounds have moved to the area in recent years.
“Among my friends, a lot of them have a family member of a different culture now,” Abuzeide said. “And so when you have grandchildren that are from a different religion or culture or ethnicity, you have to confront that. And I think the Democrats do a better job of being inclusive.”
Taking another look at policies
Kirkwood, a former Republican-leaning town, has become a Democratic stronghold in the era of Trump. Things have moved so far in the Democrats’ direction that the GOP didn’t even field a candidate for a state House race there in 2018.
Kirkwood resident Renee Werner said Trump malaise is prompting voters to take another look at Democratic policies they may have once rejected.
“The presidential impact is having people look at a progressive agenda as no longer a far-left swing. It can be more moderate,” Werner said. “Clearly, the insanity we’re seeing has absolutely trickled down to a local level.”
Wagner, who has represented the 2nd District since 2013, said she and Trump are not “one and the same,” especially when it comes to style. But she disputes the idea that voters in the district are becoming more liberal when it comes to issues.
Wagner specifically praised Trump for his nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the U.S. Supreme Court. She also said she approves of Trump’s policies on slashing taxes and regulations.
“We have an extreme difference in tenor, in tone, in tweet storms,” Wagner said. “I don’t get distracted by that. I do believe that his policies, many and most of his policies, have been very, very sound for the United States of America.”
State Sen. Andrew Koenig, R-Manchester, acknowledged that Trump is making his 2020 race more difficult.
Koenig is running against Democratic state Rep. Deb Lavender in the 15th District, which includes Kirkwood, Ballwin and Manchester. His first election in 2016 was a breeze, partially because of the district’s GOP tilt. In addition, his opponent barely spent any money in his campaign and admitted that he commuted between St. Louis and Georgia.
Koenig said that some people in the district don’t like the way Trump tweets or talks. But Koenig added that when he goes door to door, he’s finding that voters are still with him on key issues.
“The two issues that I think most constituents are talking about is law and order. And we’re on the right side of that issue. I’m the only person endorsed by the Fraternal Order of Police,” Koenig said. “And then the issue is taxes. People do not want to be overtaxed. The problem with Missouri is they tax you everywhere.”
Lavender, though, said she agrees with Werener about how Trump’s presidency is prompting voters to notice more stark differences between candidates when it comes to issues like health care, abortion and environmental policy.
“Historically if you look at St. Louis County, Democrats move west,” Lavender said. “And so, I flipped the seat in District 90. It took me a couple of years to do it. But part of that was because the demographics are changing. I think we’re going to see that demographics have changed over the last four years in this location. I think Trump’s presidency has been part of what’s been changing this and more so because it has pointed out the differences in people in the suburbs and what they’re looking for.”
One telltale sign that Trump is not as popular in the 2nd District is how some of Wagner’s allies are attacking Schupp on health care policy.
Some third-party ads have accused Schupp of supporting “Medicare for All,” a proposal supported by Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. These ads have featured Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden attacking the plan, and by extension, attacking Schupp. She has said she does not back Medicare for All but is supportive of adding a public option to the Affordable Care Act.
Kondik said he’s seen that strategy used in other suburban House districts, which is an implicit sign that Biden is more popular than Trump in those areas and therefore is an asset to down-ballot candidates.
“And so you kind of decouple Biden from the rest of the Democratic Party, which is perceived as more liberal,” Kondik said. “It's a different kind of strategy that we're used to seeing from a lot of Republicans, because the typical play is to tie a local candidate to the national Democratic Party.”
While all of the 15th District is in St. Louis County, the 2nd Congressional District includes parts of St. Charles and Jefferson counties. There’s less evidence that Trump’s popularity is slipping in those parts of the St. Louis region, which have historically supported more conservative candidates.
“We caution candidates not to take Republican votes for granted,” said Missouri Republican Party Executive Director Jean Evans. “Just because someone is a Trump voter, don't necessarily take it for granted in these rural areas that they're going to vote for you. Every vote has to be earned.”
She agrees with Wagner and Koenig that voters in the usually Republican parts of St. Louis County still stand with the GOP on issues.
“We want to keep St Louis County above 40% Republican,” Evans said. “So really we would like to see it above 45. That would be ideal. And we know that we cannot continue a downward trend in St. Louis County and continue to hold onto the state.”
Even if Biden wins big in St. Louis and lifts down-ballot Democrats to victory on Nov. 3, it may not be a permanent pattern.
But west St. Louis County resident Susan Moore is heartened that people around her are engaged about the election cycle. What she’s hoping changes in the future, though, is the tone and tenor of politics.
“You know we’ve gone through a Democratic era, we’ve gone through a Republican era,” Moore said. “We’ll be fluid. And I think that’s the beauty of living in our country. I think what’s missing is respect for other people and listening to people and what they have to say.”
Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum