This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 9, 2012 - The big news out of U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay Jr.’s strong victory in Tuesday’s 1st District Democratic primary arguably wasn’t the fact that he won.
Rather, it was his long – and strong – coattails.
In their quest to solidly defeat fellow St. Louis congressman Russ Carnahan, Clay and his allies were able to mobilize a turnout operation -- particularly in the city’s African-American neighborhoods -- that was stronger than the region has seen in a primary in years.
As a result, African-American candidates – many who had not been expected to win -- swept a number of other contests within the 1st District, including city treasurer, the 5th District state Senate seat and several state House races. In most of those contests, the favored candidate (who ended up losing) was white.
The winners included Tishaura Jones for city treasurer, Jamilah Nasheed for the 5th District state Senate seat, and state House winners Karla May and Michael Butler.
Turnout in much of the 1st District substantially exceeded the statewide turnout percentage of 22nd percent. In the city of St. Louis, for example, turnout was close to 28 percent, with the predominantly black 21st Ward hitting 31 percent.
“The Clay machine is retooled and advances into the 21st century,” Clay told the St. Louis American.
The congressman was referring to the legendary reputation of his father, now-retired U.S. Rep. William L. Clay Sr., for overseeing a get-out-the-vote operation that for three decades often got credit for electing a favored Democrat.
Ironically, those who got such help included Carnahan’s father, Mel Carnahan, who gained the 1992 Democratic nomination for governor after the elder Clay helped him defeat then-St. Louis Mayor Vincent C. Schoemehl Jr. Thanks to Clay, the elder Carnahan even carried the city of St. Louis.
Tuesday’s success by the younger Clay already has attracted the attention of statewide Democrats on the November ballot, notably U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.
McCaskill had stayed neutral in the Clay-Carnahan contest, but she said Thursday that she already had been talking with Clay, after being impressed with his successful turnout operation.
“He and I are working closely together,” McCaskill said. “I will be working with Tishaura and Jamilah and all the candidates, the strong candidates that worked very hard and had decisive victories."
The strongest turnout around the state was in some of the areas involved in that primary, and many of them were predominantly African-American areas," McCaskill continued. "There was a great deal of enthusiasm on the ground, and I feel that will carry over to November.”
Building a grassroots ground game
How did Clay do it? A spokesman for Clay, who was out of town, cited a cooperative field operation that involved supportive Democrats throughout the district, including Mayor Francis Slay and the region’s labor groups.
Carnahan had the support of the region’s police and firefighter organizations, but they were apparently unable to match Clay's ground operation.
Both candidates had black and white allies, a fact that each side emphasized in an effort to prevent any racial tensions during their campaigns.
A Clay campaign spokesman contended that Carnahan may have made a serious mistake by deciding against running any TV ads. Carnahan had opted instead to spend around $80,000 on a districtwide mailer, thousands of which included an audio chip that – when the mailer was opened – featured a woman’s voice attacking Clay.
Meanwhile, Clay ran an ad during the final week that featured Slay and St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley speaking on his behalf, as well as white and black supporters.
Dooley’s appearance was noteworthy since he once had been a Clay rival, challenging him for Congress in 2000, when Lacy Clay made his first bid for the post after his father retired.
Slay also introduced Clay at his election-night event. The mayor’s presence, and his support in the get-out-the-vote effort, could improve Slay’s sometimes-testy relationships with some African-American officials when he runs for an unprecedented fourth term next year.
Slay’s potential rival is Board of Alderman President Lewis Reed, who is African-American. Reed is a longtime personal friend of Carnahan and appeared with the congressman when he gave his concession speech.
City Republicans stayed out of Democratic contests
Nasheed and Jones already have attracted hefty public attention over their victories in crowded Democratic fields for the state Senate and city treasurer.
Nasheed said Thursday that all the victorious candidates deserve credit for working together. "You had individuals who actually knew how to run ground games,'' she said.
African-American candidates -- and voters, she added, "had a lot on the line'' and feared significant losses in legislative representation, in Washington and Jefferson City, without a strong turnout.
But black city Democrats also were helped, said Nasheed, because white Republicans -- generally concentrated in the city's southwest wards -- didn't cross over to take Democratic ballots, a common practice in city primaries.
Instead, city Republicans took GOP ballots because of the crowd of Republican contests, from U.S. Senate on down.
Observed Nasheed candidly: "Who knows what the outcome would have been (in the 1st District) if there had been no Republican races?"
Jones is a state legislator and the daughter of former St. Louis Comptroller Virvus Jones, also a Clay ally. Tishaura Jones defeated city Democratic Party chairman Brian Wahby and Aldermen Jeffrey Boyd and Fred Wessels.
Virvus Jones told the St. Louis American, “Lacy took advantage of the street campaigns that were out there and working hard to stimulate the base. When you have no challengers over the years, like Lacy, it can take a while to put together a ground game. Eventually, he did and supported those who did….”
"He has to have those allies on the ground to give him infrastructure. That’s what his father had. That’s what Lacy had this time.”
Others who benefited from the wave included Michael Butler, now the likely state representative-elect in the city’s 79th District.
Riding the wave to victory
By most accounts, Butler faced tough odds in his bid against Martin Casas, who was supported by Slay.
Casas, the owner of Frontyard Features, is a former campaign aide to Slay and Reed. He raised over $78,000 and lined up key endorsements. He also started his campaign earlier than Butler, an aide to Wright-Jones.
“I definitely was the underdog,” said Butler, who raised about $20,000 for the contest.
But Butler ended up defeating Casas by a 62 percent-38 percent margin on Tuesday. Butler credits contact with voters in the district.
“We ran down my background and my experience in the legislature, and we felt like we could take it to Casas from the beginning,”Butler said. “But we always knew from the jump that if we did the work, I was going to win. We did the work. And it turned out great.”
In an interview, Casas attributed his loss to “a perfect storm of the treasurer’s race and the congressional race driving people to the polls.”
He predicted that Tuesday’s huge Democratic primary turnout would turn out to be rare.
“When is the next intense race like this going to happen? There isn’t one,” Casas said. “This was a once-in-a-lifetime thing. When Russ ran last time with 10 people for an open seat (in 2004), there wasn’t this kind of ferocity.”
“I think this time there was a lot of African-Americans who were trying to defend African-American seats and voted for African-Americans on the ballot,” Casas continued. “It kind of defies all logic where the most highly-funded, most well-organized candidate loses.”
Other well-funded white candidates – including former TV reporter Mike Owens and Ruth Ehresman – also lost bids to African-American candidates in districts with African-American majorities.
Courtney Curtis, a technology expert from Berkeley, won in the Democratic primary for the north St. Louis County-based 73rd District House seat against Doug Clemens. Curtis, who is black, prevailed decisively, even though Clemens, who is white, raised more money and nailed down notable endorsements, including from the St. Louis American.
Curtis told the Beacon he attributes his victory to an aggressive door-to-door campaign to connect with voters, as well as being involved in the district.
But Curtis also said that the 1st District contest between Clay and Carnahan made a difference.
“It definitely energized the voters to get out, because we had higher-than-normal participation,” Curtis said. “So it definitely played a role in bringing out the voters and making them educated on the races to go out and support someone.”
As for Clay, a spokesman said that Tuesday's dramatic results -- including the coattails --increases the congressman's political clout: "The math doesn't lie."
Clay also will rev up the 1st District ground game again in November, his spokesman promised. "There's no question. The congressman will be leading the charge for the entire ticket."