Missouri Republicans used their annual Lincoln Days celebration to bask in their statewide dominance: gearing up for an election cycle where the party is playing defense, as opposed to trying to knock off Democratic incumbents.
Republicans hold all but one statewide office and commanding majorities in the Missouri General Assembly. But some attendees noted that nearly absolute power over statewide government means absolute blame if Republicans fail to deliver.
As a result of the 2016 election, Republicans won races for governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, treasurer and secretary of state. All of those offices will be up for election next year during the 2020 presidential election.
Only one of those officeholders, Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft, were elected to their actual position in 2016. Gov. Mike Parson took office after Eric Greitens’ resignation. And Parson appointed Lt. Gov. Mike Kehoe, Attorney General Eric Schmitt and Treasurer Scott Fitzpatrick to their respective positions.
During Friday night’s banquet in St. Louis County, Parson cautioned his fellow Republicans that electoral success was not an excuse for complacency.
“Our work is not done,” Parson said. “We cannot and should not take our victories for granted. If anything, it means we have to work even harder to maintain our progress and hold our majorities. Working hard will lead to even more success for our party and for Missouri.”
One of the key reasons for Republican ascendancy over the past few election cycles is the party’s dominance of rural and exurban counties. During the 2018 election cycle, U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley defeated incumbent Claire McCaskill by huge margins in traditionally Democratic parts of the state — like southeast and northeast Missouri. Voters in those parts of the state have gravitated toward President Donald Trump.
Missouri Republican Party Chairwoman Kay Hoflander believes her party can keep those voters in the fold. She added that moderate to conservative Democrats may be turned off by the party moving too far to the left on the political spectrum.
“Outside looking in, it doesn’t look like a good change,” Hoflander said. “And they’re changing so far to the left that it leads these other people without a party.
The last election cycle also showcased some weaknesses. For instance, McCaskill defeated Hawley in St. Louis County by more than 100,000 votes. That suggests if Trump’s popularity declines and GOP margins in rural Missouri shrink, statewide candidates could be vulnerable.
Eddy Justice, who has been active in statewide and southeast Missouri politics for years, said rural Missouri is bright red because the national Democratic Party “has gone off and left the traditional Democrats of Missouri.”
“And so, I think Trump is really going to emphasize the dissatisfaction with politics — and the rural folks respond to that,” Justice said. “And I think we’re going to see a strong showing in rural Missouri in this next election cycle, because the president’s on the ballot.”
U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, who is not on the ballot next year, also predicted Trump’s sustained popularity in Missouri.
“In our state, his numbers get better and better all the time. They are substantially better than they were when he won the state by 19 points,” said Blunt, referring to Trump’s landslide victory in 2016. “I think you’re going to see a unified, enthusiastic Republican ticket in 2020. And I look forward to helping that ticket.”
Emphasis on opposition to abortion rights
One of the key themes of the weekend was the party’s opposition to abortion. Parson and Congresswoman Ann Wagner held a Saturday-afternoon rally both promoting legislation the Missouri House passed substantially restricting abortion — and condemning Democrats for advocating in favor of abortion rights.
“And I’m going to tell you what: I’m not going to ever, ever stop fighting until the day abortion is not just illegal — but it is unthinkable,” said Wagner, R-Ballwin.
Among other things, state Rep. Nick Schroer’s legislation would ban abortion if a doctor detects a heartbeat or brain activity. The St. Charles County Republican said language in the bill would make abortion illegal after eight weeks of pregnancy. The bill now goes to the Senate, where it’s expected to face a Democratic filibuster.
“I’ve seen many, many good pro-life bill die because of the filibuster,” said Sam Lee, a lobbyist for Campaign Life Missouri. “But our pro-life Missouri senators can stand taller than their opponents by standing on your shoulders.”
Hawley, who has made his opposition to abortion rights a key part of his political career, said the GOP emphasis on the issue is “driven by how Democrats have taken such a startling, hard left turn on this.”
“There just no other word for it other than extremism,” Hawley said. “And in the face of that extremism, I think it’s important to stand up and say, ‘Wait a minute, this is not where the country is.’ It’s certainly not where Missourians are. And it’s not in step with our most important values. So I do think you’ll hear Republicans talk about it a lot, because they’re being totally captured by the hard left wing.”
Democrats who oppose Schroer’s bill contend it will drive women to pursue dangerous and illegal abortions. Detractors also sharply criticized the fact there were only exceptions in the bill for medical emergencies, but not for women who become pregnant because of rape or incest. It’s almost certain to face a court challenge if it makes it Parson’s desk.
“Missouri Republicans should quit playing politics with women’s lives and instead focus on health care policies that move our state forward,” said Missouri Democratic Party executive director Lauren Gepford after the House passed Schroer’s bill.
Asked if there was anything he would change about Schroer’s bill, including whether to add exceptions for rape or incest, Parson replied: “I think that’s a work in progress, and we all know how the legislative process works.”
“We want to see how this gets through the Legislature and gets through the Senate,” Parson said. “When it gets to the governor’s office, we’re going to take a look and see what’s in there. But the main thing is we’re trying to protect the unborn and be pro-life in this state. And I think we’re setting an example by doing this.”
Great power, great responsibility
A former governor took the opportunity on Friday night to remind attendees that this isn’t the first time that the GOP has held the governorship and controlled the Missouri General Assembly.
During his keynote speech on Friday, Matt Blunt noted that since the adoption of the 1945 constitution, Republicans have only controlled the governor’s office, House and Senate for six years. Four of those were during his administration from 2005 to 2009.
While Blunt managed to follow through on a host of priorities that Republicans sought for decades, voters ultimately elected mainly Democratic statewide officials during the 2008 election cycle. And he stressed that because Republicans completely control state government, voters in 2020 will expect results.
“When we face the voters in 2020, they’ll have a right to ask what we’ve done with that opportunity. What have we accomplished for the people of Missouri?” said Blunt, who is now the president of the American Automotive Policy Council. “And we know there won’t be anybody else to blame because of this unique circumstance we have in our state.”
He also pointed out that since Missouri has become a noncompetitive presidential state and that there’s not a U.S. Senate race on the ballot next year, Republicans can’t expect an influx of national money or organizational help for statewide candidates like Parson.
“We’re no longer that battleground state,” Blunt said. “We’re not going to have a bunch of folks pouring in from outside to help us win a lot of these elections. It’s up to us to win elections.”
Because of this reality, Congressman Jason Smith said the party must engage in “more grassroots work and more support within the internal Republican structure.”
“We’re right on the issues and the values that represent the majority of all Missourians,” said Smith, R-Salem. “And that’s why we have supermajorities in the House and Senate and every one but one position statewide. But it’s going to be an interesting cycle when you see all but three statewides up for an election. But we’ll see.”
For his part, Parson said the biggest factor in next year’s elections is making sure the GOP focuses on what Missourians want from their elected leaders.
“It’s pretty simple. Be a good listener. And make sure you’re listening to the people back home,” Parson said.
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