For Missouri Democrats, tomorrow is judgment day.
Voters will decide if the last two Democratic statewide officials remain in their posts. If U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill and state Auditor Nicole Galloway prevail, it could provide a jolt for a party seeking to rebound after the disaster of 2016.
But if GOP Attorney General Josh Hawley is able to topple McCaskill, and Saundra McDowell is elected auditor, it could be the surest evidence that once-purple Missouri is now deep red.
Those two races aren’t the only things on the electoral radar. Voters will also decide on several major ballot initiatives — including three on legalizing medical marijuana.
In Illinois, Republicans are on the defensive after Gov. Bruce Rauner’s tumultuous term.
A staggering amount of money descended on Missouri to influence the outcome of the Hawley-McCaskill contest. But it’s safe to say that President Donald Trump will play an outsized role in the outcome, as voters often decide on U.S. Senate races based on how they’re feeling about the people in power in Washington.
While Trump’s approval ratings have been less than stellar in states like Illinois, most polls in Missouri hovered around 50 percent support. That could be why Hawley hasn’t shied away from linking himself with Trump, either on the issues or by standing beside the president on the campaign trail.
Trump won Missouri by 19 points, and if the president still maintains strong enough support in the state’s rural areas and conservative suburbs, like Jefferson and St. Charles counties, that may be the boost Hawley needs.
But if Trump’s policies energized Democrats enough in St. Louis, St. Louis County and Kansas City, Hawley’s bet on the president may backfire.
Even after 2016, few completely wrote off McCaskill’s chances, thanks to her reputation as a skilled campaigner and because she usually does better in rural Missouri than a typical Democratic candidate.
But the political landscape in Missouri has changed dramatically since McCaskill beat Sen. Jim Talent in 2006. Many of the rural and suburban counties she won that year have gravitated to Republicans. And that makes her path to victory much narrower than in years’ past.
For McCaskill to win, three things need to happen:
She must get large turnout and overwhelming victories in St. Louis and Kansas City, as well as St. Louis County.
She needs to win in suburban and exurban areas, such as Jefferson, Platte, Clay and Buchanan counties.
She needs to hold down Hawley’s margin of victory in small rural counties, and traditional Republican strongholds like Greene and St. Charles counties.
McCaskill won by a narrow margin using this geographic path in 2006. Replicating it will not be easy this time around.
While much of the attention this cycle is on the Hawley-McCaskill contest, how Missouri’s 2nd Congressional District contest shakes out could have a big impact on the outcome.
Congresswoman Ann Wagner, R-Ballwin, and Democratic challenger Cort VanOstran are spending more money and deploying more volunteers than normal in a district that tilts heavily toward the GOP. Since more people vote in the 2nd Congressional District than any other district in the state, the candidate who has the decisive edge could deliver a lot of votes to McCaskill or Hawley.
VanOstran’s candidacy has energized Democratic parts of the district that were likely resigned to a Republican congressman. But Wagner is renowned for her political and organizational instincts, and her campaign could bring out voters in western St. Louis County and St. Charles County that Hawley needs to win.
If VanOstran can keep things close, or win outright, it’s arguably good news for McCaskill. But a decisive Wagner win could help Hawley get the conservative suburban voters he needs.
Before he made a name for himself as an attorney in the public and private arena, Missouri Republican Party Chairman Todd Graves was an unsuccessful down ballot candidate. Despite raising more than a million dollars and campaigning hard across the state, Graves fell short of becoming state treasurer in 2000 against Democrat Nancy Farmer.
The key lesson Graves learned was that all the fundraising and barnstorming can’t prevent a candidate from being caught in a larger political wave. And he predicts a similar pattern could emerge in the state auditor’s contest between incumbent Democrat Nicole Galloway and Republican Saundra McDowell.
Even though Galloway has raised substantially more money, McDowell may pull off a win if Hawley prevails decisively. That’s what happened in 2010, when Republican Roy Blunt’s blowout win helped propel GOP candidate Tom Schweich into the auditor’s office.
Of course, McCaskill herself won re-election comfortably as auditor in 2002 — a year when Talent captured a U.S. Senate seat. So the precedent of senatorial coattails is not absolute.
Even during not-so-good years for the party, Republicans have made sizable gains in the Missouri General Assembly — blowing past the threshold where they can easily override a gubernatorial veto.
Keeping the “supermajority” is not as vital as it used to be, because Republican Gov. Mike Parson is probably not going to veto a lot of General Assembly priorities. That’s not stopping Republicans from spending big money to hold onto competitive state Senate seats — or to either capture or defend House districts in suburban parts of the state.
If Democrats can make serious gains this cycle, that could give them confidence for 2020 when a number of competitive Senate and House seats will be up for grabs with incumbents leaving due to term limits. Republicans would likely be overjoyed with keeping the same amount Senate seats or only losing two or three House seats.
When this reporter produced a “things to look for” article four years ago, one of the questions was whether then-Gov. Pat Quinn’s unpopularity would help Republican Mike Bost capture the 12th Congressional District. The answer was yes, since Bruce Rauner won decisively in the traditionally Democratic district.
Flash forward to the present, and Rauner is likely heading toward a substantial defeat to Democrat JB Pritzker. And the GOP incumbent’s unpopularity, along with some voters distaste for Trump, could be a deadly combination in suburban congressional districts.
The calculus isn’t as cut-and-dried in the 12th, where Bost is facing a strong challenge from Democrat Brendan Kelly. Even if Rauner falls in that district, there’s a lot of evidence that Trump is still popular there, and that Bost’s association with the president and his policies may help him win a tough fight.
Even if Bost wins, a Pritzker win would give him the ability to sign off on a new congressional map that makes the 12th District more Democratic. Though Pritzker told St. Louis Public Radio that he would not sign “a gerrymandered map” — even if powerful House Speaker Mike Madigan pushes for it.
Before he ascended to the governorship, then-Lt. Gov. Mike Parson didn’t just endorse the idea of a gas tax hike for transportation. He told St. Louis Public Radio that statewide officials need to vocally advocate for the idea.
Now that Parson is “Gov. Parson,” he’s following through on his prior words. Both the governor and Lt. Gov. Mike Kehoe have barnstormed the state for Proposition D, a gas tax increase that will bring more money for transportation products.
Tax increases are notoriously difficult to pass in Missouri, as evidenced by the failure of a sales tax hike for transportation in 2014. And Parson and Kehoe’s advocacy for Proposition D hasn’t been without criticism from conservative Republicans. So if Missouri voters do end up approving a gas tax increase, then a lot of the credit will go to Parson and Kehoe.
If a ballot initiative has organized opposition, the chances that the measure will fail go up. That’s the situation with Amendment 1, which seeks to overhaul state legislative redistricting and institute restrictions on lobbying.
Proponents of “Clean Missouri” have stressed bipartisan support, and have more money to get their message out than detractors. And the messaging emphasizing a crackdown on lobbyist-paid freebies and “big money” may be alluring to a cross-section of voters.
But there are at least two examples of ballot initiatives that almost lost despite outspending their adversaries: A 2006 constitutional amendment protecting stem cell research and a 2010 measure regulating dog-breeding. Both of those initiatives lost scores of rural and socially conservative counties, the same subset of voters that Clean Missouri opponents are targeting.
One wild card is whether opposition from some prominent African-American politicians and organizations concerned about losing representation brings down margins of victory in St. Louis or Kansas City.
On the Trail, a occastional column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads from the world of Illinois and Missouri politics.
Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum