6 Takeaways From A Landmark St. Louis Election
Tuesday was historic for St. Louis politics.
The advancement of St. Louis Treasurer Tishaura Jones and Alderwoman Cara Spencer means that for the first time, two women will square off in the April mayoral election. It was also the city's first use of approval voting, which allows people to choose as many candidates as they want, with the top two moving on to the April election.
But it was also a watershed moment for left-of-center activists who have found themselves disappointed in critical citywide elections. For the first time in several decades, a different political faction will control the mayor’s office no matter who prevails in April.
St. Louis residents should brace for more uncharted territory over the next month, as this will be the first time since 2009 that the general election will be the decisive race for mayor. In the past, the winner of the Democratic primary was likely the next mayor.
But in the meantime, here are some key takeaways from Tuesday’s election.
The political faction that backed Slay, Stenger and Krewson suffered a big blow
For several decades, a faction that received financial support from key business leaders and labor unions helped propel Francis Slay, Steve Stenger and Lyda Krewson to victory in St. Louis and St. Louis County. For the most part, that faction supported St. Louis Board of Aldermen President Lewis Reed during this election — and donated prodigiously to both his campaign account and aligned political action committee.
But despite receiving more endorsements and financial support than in his previous two mayoral bids, Reed came in a distant third to Jones and Spencer. He didn’t place first in a single ward, including places where he’s done well in the past.
And while Jones and Spencer haven’t always seen eye to eye on politics or issues, they have strongly opposed key initiatives of that corporate-labor alliance — including failed bids to find a private operator for St. Louis Lambert International Airport and merge the city and county. With the demise of Stenger and the election of St. Louis County Executive Sam Page, there’s clearly been a shift when it comes to political power in the region.
Jones vastly improved her performance in north St. Louis
One of the notable shortcomings of Jones’ 2017 campaign was her showing in heavily African American north St. Louis. She lost a number of wards to both Reed and then-St. Louis Alderman Antonio French, a key factor in her narrow loss.
Flash forward four years, and Jones’ performance improved dramatically. She not only won every ward with a Black majority, she won by an overwhelming margin. And those numbers could grow in April, since white candidates have not historically done well in citywide races with a Black candidate.
If anything, it’s fair to assume that even without voters having the ability to vote for multiple candidates, Jones and Spencer would have moved on to the April runoff because of the stellar outcomes for Jones in heavily Black parts of the city.
Approval voting likely helped Spencer get to the second round
That doesn't mean that approval voting didn’t matter on Tuesday.
Because so many voters in south St. Louis picked Spencer as one of their choices, she collected more than enough votes to win a spot in the April election. She even beat Reed in parts of southwest St. Louis, an area that typically gravitates toward candidates who align with the “establishment” faction.
One of the big questions going forward is what south St. Louis voters who selected multiple candidates will do in April. Will southwest St. Louis voters, who include a lot of Republicans who may have picked utility executive Andrew Jones, cast ballots for Spencer? And what will wards that voted somewhat evenly between Tishaura Jones and Spencer (such as the 8th, 9th, 10th, 15th and 20th — Spencer's home ward) do in April?
Endorsements only mattered so much
Both Jones and Spencer were able to nab endorsements from key political officials and organizations over the past few months. Reed had backing from a majority of the St. Louis Board of Aldermen as well as organizations like the Carpenters Union and the St. Louis Police Officers Association. He also won support from a number of ward organizations that play a big role in getting out the vote. But, none of those endorsements, or getting the backing of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch Editorial Board along with Spencer, seemed to make much of a difference.
So one of the intriguing subplots over the next few weeks will be what the political figures and organizations that backed either Reed or both Jones and Spencer decide to do. Yet those endorsements will likely be less important for Spencer and Jones than their strategy for getting out the vote.
Approval voting may need some tweaking
Since approval voting is an ordinance and not a charter amendment, the Board of Aldermen can make changes before the next election cycle.
One of the alterations could include changing the signature requirement to get on the ballot. The barrier to entry for mayoral candidates was especially high this year, resulting in a number of candidates failing to make the ballot because of insufficient signatures.
The other potential change? There were a number of two-person races on Tuesday in which one candidate got substantially more votes than the other — yet they’ll have to run again against the same opponent in April. It could be argued that it’s not fair to people like Brandon Bosley, Megan Green, Dan Guenther and Anne Schwietzer, who got close to or more than 70% approval, that they have to run the same race in a month. Other incumbents like Alderwoman Sharon Tyus, Tammika Hubbard and Alderman John Collins-Muhammad got close to or more than 60% of the vote in a multicandidate field.
Of course, figuring out the guidelines behind cutting off a runoff may be tricky. For one thing: What would be the percentage of votes needed to avoid a runoff? And what happens in the off chance that voters select two candidates with over 60% or 70% of the vote?
Turnout wasn’t that great
Only around 22% of eligible voters came out Tuesday to participate in the primary election. That’s down from 2017, when about 28% of voters cast ballots in the mayoral contest.
But in some respects, comparing 2021 and 2017 isn’t fair, because there are a number of voters who are hesitant to congregate in polling places because of the COVID-19 pandemic. And it’s not out of the question that the April election will feature higher-than-normal turnout because the aldermanic and mayoral elections are decisive, while Tuesday’s contests were not.
Whether turnout spikes could depend on how successful Jones and Spencer are at getting city residents excited to vote for them.
Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum
Follow Rachel on Twitter: @rlippmann