Democrat Trish Gunby won a high-profile Missouri House race in the 99th District on Tuesday, capturing a historically Republican seat with 54% of the vote in west St. Louis County.
Gunby’s victory over Republican Lee Ann Pitman is a morale boost for a Missouri Democratic Party that’s struggling to pick up the pieces after three disastrous election cycles that left the party out of favor in the state.
“Before I decided to run, I did my research. I knew I could do this. And I knew with the best team and the best volunteers we could win this thing,” Gunby said in her victory speech at the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 655 headquarters in Ballwin. “And that’s exactly what we’ve done.”
Gunby prevailed over Pitman 3,357 to 2,855 in a district that includes Manchester, Valley Park and Twin Oaks. Turnout was 25%.
Gunby, who has been a marketing professional for Citicorp and Purina, will fill out the last year of Jean Evans’ term. Evans resigned earlier this year to become the executive director of the Missouri Republican Party.
“The energy is always on the side of the minority party, so we knew that,” said Evans after Gunby won. “It’s a special election. Anything could happen.”
Gunby raised significantly more money than Pitman and received help from Democratic elected officials and activists throughout the state. Her platform includes making it easier for people to vote, enacting stricter background checks on firearms and extending statewide anti-discrimination protections to the LGBTQ community.
“I believe there are more people who have Democratic-leaning ideals and ideas than people originally thought,” Gunby said in an interview after her victory. “I kept reassuring them: You have a voice; there are other people who feel this way. And that just kept getting bolstered throughout all of our canvassing efforts.”
Gunby said her campaign hit over 30,000 doors in the run-up to the special election.
“And we just kept saying, ‘Trust me, there are other folks out there. We can do this,’” Gunby said. “I think this victory shows with the right candidate and the right message, you can really win. And you can take the message you’re hearing at the doors and take it to Jeff City."
Pitman, a senior accountant for Protective Life Corp., focused her campaign on reducing regulations around small businesses, assisting veterans with benefits and opposing the Better Together proposal that would have merged St. Louis and St. Louis County.
“We did expect the race to be close,” Pitman said. “We really did, because both of us have been working very hard.”
The contest between Gunby and Pitman drew statewide attention, primarily because the other five House special elections on the ballot Tuesday were either in safe Democratic or Republican districts. Many contended that a Gunby victory would signal an end to GOP dominance in west St. Louis County — and cement the once-competitive county as strongly Democratic turf.
Republicans conceded Tuesday night that the district has become a tough one for the GOP to win.
Evans, who held the seat just a couple of months ago, referred to the district as “Democratic leaning.” She said former U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill and former Secretary of State Jason Kander, both Democrats, had carried the area in previous statewide races.
Outside committees spent more than $150,000 on the race. Gunby received a boost from the carpenters union and the Democratic Caucus-aligned House Victory Committee. The House Republican Campaign Committee spent tens of thousands of dollars to support Pitman.
“I think the thing that matters in districts like this is honesty and relationships,” said state Rep. Peter Merideth, D-St. Louis, who is part of the House Victory Committee. “She’s somebody that could build trust with people when she talked to them. They could tell she believed what she said. And she wasn’t trying to pretend to be anybody else. And I think that matters to voters more than anything else.”
Gunby will likely take office in January. She will have to run again next November to serve a full term in the House. Turnout is higher in presidential elections.
In 2018, Mike Revis won a previously GOP-held House seat that took in parts of Jefferson and St. Louis counties. But he ended up losing his bid for a two-year term later in the year to Republican Mary Elizabeth Coleman.
Republicans expect to be ready to challenge Gunby next year as well. Pitman said she hasn’t ruled out running again in 2020.
One person who was especially bullish about Gunby’s victory was state Rep. Deb Lavender, who is challenging state Sen. Andrew Koenig in Missouri’s 15th District. Much of the 99th House District is in that St. Louis County-based district.
Like the 99th District, the 15th Senate District has been in Republican hands for years. And Koenig is known for being an effective and tough campaigner. But Lavender said Gunby’s victory speaks volumes.
“Progressive issues are at the heart of what our district is looking for,” said Lavender, D-Kirkwood. “They want affordable and accessible health care. They want good public education. We want common gun-sense measures. And that’s what people are looking for. They’re looking for us as their leaders to bring people together and come up with solutions.”
Aldridge, Person easily prevail
There was less drama in Missouri’s 74th and 78th House District contests, where the Democratic nominees won their races handily.
Michael Person defeated Libertarian Nick Kasoff in the 74th District, which takes in parts of Ferguson, Jennings, Dellwood and Country Club Hills. Person captured 57% of the vote.
Person is the Ferguson Township Democratic committeeman who recently ran unsuccessfully for a seat on the Ferguson City Council. He previously served on the Riverview Gardens School Board and works for Ameren on diversity and inclusion issues.
Person will serve out the rest of former state Rep. Cora Faith Walker’s term in the Missouri House. Walker resigned to become policy director for St. Louis County Executive Sam Page.
Rasheen Aldridge had an even easier time in the St. Louis-based 78th District. He faced no competition in the contest to fill out of the rest of former state Rep. Bruce Franks’ term. Franks resigned to tend to his anxiety and depression.
Aldridge first came on the political scene in the city as an activist within the movement to raise the minimum wage. Then-Gov. Jay Nixon later appointed Aldridge to the Ferguson Commission, which sought to chart out a policy path after Michael Brown’s shooting death. Aldridge was ultimately elected 5th Ward Committeeman in 2016, defeating longtime incumbent Rodney Hubbard Sr.
Both the 74th and 78th House Districts are heavily Democratic. Like Gunby, Person and Aldridge will have to run again next year to win a full term in the Missouri House.
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