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On the trail: What to watch for in a Stenger-Dooley skirmish

St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley, left,and  St. Louis County Councilman Steve Stenger, D-Affton. Stenger is planning to announce his bid for county executive this week.
Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Beacon | 2013

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: St. Louis County Councilman Steve Stenger’s primary bid against Charlie Dooley, the incumbent county executive, isn’t exactly a surprise.

While Stenger was planning to announce his primary bid against Dooley Tuesday, he's been telegraphing his intra-party challenge for months. After all, the Affton Democrat has been amassing hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign cash since winning re-election.

Dooley and Stenger have been at odds for some time, with Stenger usually throwing the jabs. Stenger was a virulent critic in 2011 of Dooley’s attempt to shut down county parks. He’s also been sharply critical of how Dooley has run St. Louis County government — including, among other things, giving a longtime campaign aide's son a county job and how the county executive reacted to the awarding of a crime lab subcontract.

Make no mistake about it: Stenger is a serious contender. He already has the fundraising resources to mount a credible countywide campaign — and the ability to throw his own money into the contest. He'll likely have endorsements from organized labor groups disenchanted with Dooley.

And he’ll be facing an incumbent who’s encountered a slew of controversies throughout his latest term, including the recent revelation that a top health department administrator directed county money to a company that he set up.

Still, Dooley isn’t without his political strengths. He, too, has been actively fundraising for another term. And he will have the support of regional heavyweights, such as St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay.

And Stenger will face the challenge of increasing his name recognition beyond the confines of south St. Louis County.

Plenty can happen between now and August. But here's a few things to watch out for that could determine the outcome of this primary contest.

Will south St. Louis County turn out for Stenger?

Stenger already showcased his ability to rack up votes from primarily unincorporated south St. Louis County. He managed to unseat an incumbent Republican officeholder in 2008 and last year won re-election relatively easily.

But it’s an open question how much Stenger’s home base will turn out next year. For one thing, south St. Louis County is not a Democratic stronghold. Stenger’s council district is split relatively evenly between Republicans and Democrats.

On the other hand, Dooley has sometimes clashed with South County residents — especially over the establishment of trash districts. During his 2010 race against Republican Bill Corrigan, Dooley fared relatively poorly in south St. Louis County townships like Oakville, Lemay and Concord. So it's possible residents in those areas could come out to vote in the event of a competitive primary.

How will candidates fare in north St. Louis County?

Dooley has longtime ties to north St. Louis County, including stints as Northwoods mayor and as a county councilman representing much of the area. His blowout margins in north St. Louis County townships were likely one reason he narrowly defeated Corrigan.

But with the defection of organized labor groups from Dooley, Stenger could win support of areas of the county with high concentrations of union members. That includes large municipalities such as Florissant and Hazelwood.

Watch which candidate Councilmen Mike O’Mara, D-Florissant, and Pat Dolan, D-Richmond Heights, back next year. Both men are union members.

How will eastern and central St. Louis County go?

While it may be safe to assume that Stenger does well in south St. Louis County and Dooley in north county, a bigger unknown is who will win in eastern and central portions of the county.

These areas contain large blocs of Democratic voters, especially in places like Richmond Heights, Olivette, Creve Coeur and Overland. Dooley likely has greater name recognition than Stenger, especially since he’s already run in three countywide elections in 2004, 2006 and 2010. But it remains to be seen whether Dooley’s recent controversies have dampened enthusiasm for him in those areas. 

Kirkwood and Webster Groves could also be significant battlegrounds. While neither of those municipalities is as Democratic as those mentioned above, they are relatively large and have trended toward the Democrats to some extent in recent years.

Could other primaries impact turnout?

Any battle between Dooley and Stenger won’t be occurring in a vacuum. It’ll be taking place at the same time as primaries for state Senate and state House seats across St. Louis County. Depending on the particular contest, other Democratic primaries could increase turnout in particular parts of the county.

For instance, Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, D-University City, said on the Politically Speaking podcast earlier this year that she expects to face a primary opponent in her bid for re-election. That could bring voters in her north St. Louis County state Senate district to the polls – which could potentially help increase turnout in Dooley’s home base.

A cluster of primaries throughout the St. Louis region may have been one factor behind U.S. Rep. Lacy Clay's victory over then-U.S. Rep. Russ Carnahan, D-St. Louis. 

Conversely, if there are many primaries for south St. Louis County state representative seats, that could bring more of Stenger's voters to the polls.

Will Republicans vote in a Democratic primary?

With state Auditor Tom Schweich unlikely to face a Republican primary opponent, there won’t likely be any big-ticket statewide races to prompt Republicans to the polls. 

That could give GOP voters a reason to cast a ballot in the Democratic primary — similar to how Republican voters likely voted in this year’s St. Louis mayor’s race. St. Louis County GOP activists have sparred with Dooley for years, most recently about the prospect of the city of St. Louis re-entering the county as a municipality.

Of course, it’s early. It’s possible, for instance, there could be a Republican primary for county executive. And there could be GOP primaries for state Senate and state House seats that could prevent Republican voters from crossing over.

And while St. Louis County Republicans have been critical of Dooley for years, he has managed to snag support from some traditionally Republican donors. He recently had a fundraiser with William Danforth and James McDonnell III, two of the top political donors in the state that often give to Republicans. And, of course, he's received thousands of dollars from retired financer Rex Sinquefield.

Is the primary field set?

On the Jaco Report, Dooley emphatically stated he was running for re-election. From the looks of his recent fundraising numbers, there's no evidence he's planning to change course anytime soon.

But if Dooley changes his mind, it would obviously change the dynamics of a Democratic primary. After all, the county executive's job is one of the most prominent political jobs in the St. Louis region. Plenty of municipal, state and county officials might consider taking a shot at the post.

Even if Dooley stays in, it's possible that another candidate might jump into the fray. That would further divide and complicate the geographic strategy.

But after Tuesday, the Democratic field will feature two well-funded candidates who have not often seen eye-to-eye. And it could spark a bitter fight that will be remembered for some time.

On the Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads from the world of Missouri politics.

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