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Missouri Senate’s Conservative Caucus leaders say it’s no longer needed

A nearly empty Missouri Senate during a filibuster. Sen Bill Eigel, R-Weldon Spring, speaks with Sen. Rick Brattin, R-Harrisonville.
Sarah Kellogg
/
St. Louis Public Radio
The Conservative Caucus held up numerous pieces of legislation this past session through filibusters like the one pictured here in February.

The Missouri Senate’s Conservative Caucus is pointing to Aug. 2 primary results as one of the reasons for disbanding after four years, but it’s not because voters showed a lack of support.

Instead, caucus leaders cited the success of several conservative candidates over more moderate counterparts as an indication that Republican voters are on their side.

“We feel like we have effectively a mandate from the Republican electorate that was overwhelmingly supportive of candidates that had precisely the same kind of message that the Conservative Caucus was talking about for the past four years,” said a former caucus member, Sen. Bill Eigel, R-Weldon Spring.

While the caucus was down to five members of the 34-member body, it was slated to pick up not only the two seats lost due to term limits but likely a few others.

Anita Manion, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, said the decision was a surprise.

“It seems they would have had a strengthened coalition going into the next session and more leverage, which they seemed eager to apply in the previous sessions,” Manion said.

Six Republican incumbents, none of them members of the Conservative Caucus, faced primary challengers, with Sen. Bill White, R-Joplin, losing his reelection bid.

“The message we're hearing from Republican voters is that they're not happy with the direction and vision of leadership in the Missouri Senate,” Eigel said.

While the group stated its hope to unite under a single majority Republican caucus through a new coalition of leadership, whether the dissolution of the conservative caucus will mend frayed relationships is unclear.

This past session alone, the caucus butted heads frequently with Republican leadership over a variety of policies, including the congressional redistricting map and the state budget.

The disagreements led to tactics like filibusters to delay or stop legislation from advancing. The actions by caucus members, such as reading books on the Senate floor, led to anger from both Democrats and other Republicans and in one instance a bipartisan news conference condemning the actions of the caucus.

Sen. Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, who is the current Senate majority floor leader, tweeted Monday that Senate Republicans have passed generational conservative reforms into law over the past few years.

“I am happy these five Senators want to join the team that has been leading the conservative fight in Missouri,” Rowden tweeted.

Eigel called Rowden’s response “snarky.”

“I don't think that kind of that snarky, disparaging attitude is going to be very attractive to a majority of the majority,” Eigel said.

Eigel said he would be willing to support “anybody that is willing to empower the 24 members of that [Republican] caucus and is willing to push the Republican agenda,” including Rowden.

But Manion believes the move to offer an olive branch is smart for Republicans overall.

“As a strategy, this makes sense for them for getting policy priorities accomplished. And I think it also gives them the opportunity to have more influence over the leadership,” Manion said.

Manion also believes the fall elections for Senate leadership could have played a part in the caucus’s decision to disband.

“I do think that part of this unity strategy that the conservative caucus has put out is so they can have more influence over the leadership and to say, ‘You can trust us to come together as leaders, we're not separate from you, we're with you,’” Manion said.

Democrats react

Senate Assistant Minority Floor Leader Brian Williams, D-University City, agreed that leadership races are likely the reason for the dissolution.

“It's no secret that the Senate president is term-limited, and they’ll need to elect a new floor leader, and then a new pro tem. So clearly a message of unity could be a strategic move before those elections,” Williams said.

A possible united front from Senate Republicans could affect the work of Senate Democrats too. The divide within the Republican Party itself at times led to a greater need for Democratic votes, such as the passage of the gas tax increase.

The dysfunction also meant that some bills Democrats opposed ended up not passing. Williams said that while it will be interesting to see what happens with this change, the work of Democrats isn’t likely to change.

“I don't think that our agenda changes at all, it'd be just whether or not we have a majority caucus willing to work with us and focus on issues that are important to people here in Missouri,” Williams said.

While reconciliation among Senate Republicans isn’t a guarantee, Eigel says he believes the situation is fixable, though a new direction is needed.

“We can't start a new session by doing the same thing that we've done over and over in the past and potentially empowering the same people that really have gotten us here in the first place,” Eigel said.

Follow Sarah Kellogg on Twitter: @sarahkkellogg

Sarah Kellogg is the Missouri Statehouse reporter for St. Louis Public Radio

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