Redistricting makes Missouri’s 2nd Congressional District tougher for Democrats
Missouri Democrats had a good legislative session this year, but one thing they couldn’t do was prevent the St. Louis area-based 2nd District from becoming much more Republican.
That was a priority for some Democrats, who saw potential to flip a district that before redistricting included portions of St. Louis, St. Charles and Jefferson counties. But the seat, held by U.S. Rep. Ann Wagner, R-Ballwin, could be out of reach, primarily because lawmakers agreed to add the GOP strongholds of Franklin and Warren counties.
“Obviously we’d like to see the 2nd District more competitive, because it is more competitive,” said Senate Minority Leader John Rizzo, D-Independence.
The consequences of how the legislature drew the 2nd District could play out later this year. Trish Gunby and Ray Reed are competing in the Aug. 2 primary, with the winner likely to face a more challenging electoral climate for Democrats than in the recent past in trying to unseat Wagner in November — especially if the national environment is favorable to the GOP.
“I think there's a broader problem that Democrats are not very good nationally about messaging things that they do accomplish or things that they want to accomplish,” said Jack Seigel, who worked on Democrat Cort VanOstran’s 2018 campaign in the 2nd District. “And so I think it's difficult for candidates to frame the election to voters as, ‘If you change the congressperson in the 2nd District, you will bring some big change in DC.’ That just feels unlikely.”
Other Democrats, including Gunby and Reed, are optimistic about November, pointing to potential backlash over Missouri’s abortion ban and a rash of mass shootings mobilizing voters in favor of stronger gun laws against the GOP.
“I think we have some excellent Democratic candidates,” said state Sen. Jill Schupp, who unsuccessfully ran for the 2nd District seat in 2020.
Swinging toward the GOP
The last version of the 2nd District was the textbook definition of swing territory.
Shortly after the 2020 election, the Daily Kos did an analysis of how Donald Trump and Joe Biden did in the district. They found that Trump won by about 115 votes, which made the 2nd District the most closely divided congressional district in the nation.
That wasn’t likely to last. The most optimistic scenario for Democrats was that the 2nd District would get more Republican by several percentage points, primarily because the 1st District needed to expand into Democratic-leaning parts of St. Louis County.
But adding Franklin County (where Trump received nearly 70% of the vote) and Warren County (where Trump got more than 70%) pushed the district much more firmly into the GOP column. The reddening of the district was one of the reasons Democrat Ben Samuels left the 2nd District contest after the map was signed into law.
Even when the district was more even, Wagner was able to hold off two strong Democratic contenders. Despite getting support from high-powered national Democratic groups, Schupp actually did worse in 2020 than VanOstran did in 2018 — even though Biden got more than 60% of the vote in St. Louis County.
“Making the district more conservative and making it less likely for any national resources to come into the district makes it harder for down-ballot candidates to run in seats that are way more competitive than the new seat,” Seigel said.
Democrats who have run in parts of the new 2nd District haven’t gotten a warm reception.
Christine Hedges, for instance, sought a St. Charles County Council seat in 2018 — a year that was, by and large, decent for Democratic candidates. When she knocked on doors, Hedges encountered hostility from members of labor unions who have historically been aligned with Democratic candidates. She said they were primarily opposed to Democratic positions on guns.
But over time, Hedges said she found more people who thought the way she does.
“When I first sort of came out as a Democrat here in the county, and started finding more like-minded people, I was just stunned by how many there were out here," Hedges said. “I thought every single one of my neighbors was, you know, a Republican.”
Seeking a connection
Gunby and Reed both said they’re not intimidated by running in a district that's more Republican-leaning than in 2020.
Gunby, a former state representative, notes that in 2019 she was able to win a House seat that the GOP held for years — a feat that she attributes to being a tenacious campaigner.
“The way we take back the state, or at least make it more balanced, is you talk to voters,” Gunby said. “And my campaign, we’ve been doing that for 10 months.”
Reed, a former staffer with the Missouri Democratic Party, also says his campaign is reaching out to voters in historically Republican parts of the district — a strategy he says is the only way for his party to be a relevant force in the state’s politics.
“So it’s really just about meeting people where they’re at,” Reed said. “We’ve been saying ‘everywhere is Democrat country' when a Democrat’s been there.”
Some 2nd District Democrats, like Creve Coeur resident Sarah Meyer, said certain issues may galvanize voters enough to keep the 2nd District competitive, such as the recent Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade.
“There has been a whole lot of energy that has come out around, ‘Oh hell no — we’re not going back,’” Meyer said.
Others said a rash of mass shootings and more revelations about the Jan. 6 insurrection could give Democrats a fighting chance. And Maryland Heights resident Allyn Harris Dalt notes that even though Wagner may not be a pushover, she also faces a challenge in connecting with people who haven’t voted for her before. Wagner is squaring off against three GOP primary candidates on Aug. 2, including former Republican St. Louis County executive nominee Paul Berry III.
Dalt says Reed and Gunby need to stick with their plans of aggressively campaigning for the seat.
“It’s going to be tough. There’s no getting around that,” Dalt said.
Schupp, the Democrats’ last 2nd District nominee, said that she thinks policies like Missouri’s abortion ban will turn off voters — even those who feel that abortion is wrong. But she added that there could be other factors in the election, including the state of the economy.
“None of this stands in isolation unless this is the one issue that you care about,” Schupp said. “But I also think their pocketbooks are going to be considered. Increased costs are really problematic for a lot of people.”
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