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Lis Smith’s book includes candidates ‘going everywhere’ — which played well in Missouri

lis smith
Creative Commons
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Lis Smith's new book, "Any Given Tuesday: A Political Love Story," made the New York Times bestseller list earlier this year.

Lis Smith helped popularize a political communications strategy in which candidates accept every media opportunity – even with outlets that may be out of their comfort zone.

Smith used that tact while working on Pete Buttigieg’s Democratic presidential campaign, when the then-mayor of South Bend, Indiana, accepted invites to appear on TMZ and Fox News. It likely played a role in Buttigieg rising quickly from the bottom of the presidential heap to a landmark win in the Iowa Democratic presidential caucus.

“His only path to catching fire with voters was going to be through the earned media,” Smith said in a recent interview. “Because that’s not contingent on money or name ID. Everyone has access to the press. And it’s just a matter of whether you can be compelling in the press. And I knew Pete would be able to be.”

Smith’s tenure as a senior communications adviser for Buttigieg makes up a part of her book "Any Given Tuesday: A Political Love Story." It also chronicles other parts of Smith’s life and career, including her work with former U.S. Sen Claire McCaskill, as a rapid response director for President Barack Obama’s 2012 reelection bid, and as a behind-the-scenes staffer with Andrew Cuomo when his governorship collapsed in 2021.

U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill speaks during Thursday's televised senatorial debate. Oct. 18, 2018.
Carolina Hidalgo
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St. Louis Public Radio
Smith worked for former U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill's 2006 campaign against then-Sen. Jim Talent.

Missouri tenure explored

Smith’s multifaceted career got its start in Missouri, when she worked on then-state Auditor McCaskill’s first Senate campaign against then-Sen. Jim Talent in 2006. Smith also worked with Chris Koster when the then-state senator shocked the Missouri political world in 2007 by leaving the Republican Party to become a Democrat.

And while the media landscape in Missouri has changed quite a bit since 2006, some of the same "go everywhere" principles Smith espoused in the book applied in McCaskill’s campaign.

For one thing: McCaskill made it a point to campaign in rural parts of the state more aggressively. During a 2013 appearance on the Politically Speaking podcast, McCaskill cited lack of rural support for losing to Matt Blunt during the 2004 gubernatorial race. Smith said McCaskill chose to campaign aggressively in rural counties, which likely contributed to her narrow win over Talent.

“What that looks like is going to a county that may be 80-20 Republican and cutting the margin to 70-30, 60-40, 55-45 – whatever it is. And knowing that you’re not going to the county because you’re going to win it,” Smith said. “But if you go to enough of these counties and you cut into the Republican margin enough, then that’s going to add up, and that’s what’s going to put you over the edge to win.”

Smith noted that when she worked in Missouri, the state was still considered competitive on a presidential level – as evidenced by how both Obama and GOP nominee John McCain visited throughout 2008. But Democrats have suffered catastrophic losses on both a state legislative and statewide level, including McCaskill losing to Republican Josh Hawley in 2018.

Since then, Missouri Democrats have been debating whether the party should try to appeal to voters who are more conservative on social issues like abortion rights and gun control or to emphasize their progressive values to increase turnout in places like St. Louis and Kansas City. In some respects, neither strategy has been successful, as both types have lost to Republicans.

Smith said there’s no right or wrong answer to which type of candidate works across the country as long as they can fit the state.

“Given the rightward shift of Missouri, it makes sense to have a Democrat who reflects the values of the voters there – which is going to be very different from the candidate who reflects the values where I live in New York state,” Smith said. “But if you have a good candidate who can connect with people, they can overcome having positions that are more unpopular with the broader electorate.”

Book outlines personal trials

While much of the book focuses on Smith’s political exploits, it also explores some of her personal life, including how dating former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer set off a media frenzy.

She also details her father’s battle with Parkinson’s disease — and how Michael J. Fox’s participation in the 2006 Missouri election provided some foreshadowing for that difficult chapter in her life.

Smith said she wrote the book, which became a New York Times bestseller, to be accessible to everyone, regardless of their political philosophy.

“And when I started to write this book, I didn't want just to write a very partisan book, or even a super political book,” Smith said. “I wanted to write a book that Democrats, Republicans and apolitical people alike would take to. And I've been really heartened to see that that's been the case.”

Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum

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

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