For Missouri Democrats, success or failure this fall will likely hinge on whether they can persuade about 300,000 area voters to drop their habit of skipping mid-term elections.
Most of those infrequent voters are believed to be urban and suburban Democrats. And their absence at the polls in 2010 and 2014 are among the reasons why the state’s Democrats have found themselves seriously outnumbered in the Missouri Capitol.
Which helps explain why the state party set up an unusual schedule for Minnesota U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, who’s vice chair of the Democratic National Committee, when he flew into St. Louis earlier this month.
During his two-day visit, Ellison spent a lot of his time mingling with – and encouraging – potential voters like Destiny Wortham, a 19-year-old from St. Louis.
She’s enrolled at the St. Louis Agency on Training and Employment, a downtown government operation that focuses on finding jobs for the unemployed.
“So do you feel more confident now that you’re in the program?” Ellison asked Wortham, as he pressed her for details about her career plans. She hopes to get into a construction trade.
Economics is front and center
As he toured the agency, Ellison was careful not to outwardly campaign for his party. But he did make a political pitch to the various groups of job-seekers:
“Now we’re not here to tell you who to vote for,” Ellison said. “But I am here to tell you that this program exists because somebody passed a law and put money into it.”
Ellison’s aim was to emphasize the Democratic Party’s support for jobs programs, without actually saying it.
Later, he said his party needs to make clear to working people – such as nurses, teachers and police officers – what’s at stake and why they should back Democrats this fall.
“We want to make sure that the people who pour the cement, the people who drive the buses, the people who see the patients. We want them to know that the Democratic Party is focusing on their lives getting better,” Ellison said.
“That’s what Roosevelt did, that’s what Truman did, one-on-one, on the ground,” he added.
Among other things, that means Democrats will need to refute the benefits of the federal tax cuts that now are going into effect, and which are a linchpin of the Republican message this fall. So far, polls indicate that the public is warming to the GOP’s theme that everybody is benefiting.
“What they want to do is create a ‘sugar high’ to get through the next election,” Ellison said. He contended that his party needs to continue to hammer at the disparity of the tax cuts’ benefits.
“Yes, it may kick a few bucks here or there. But all the ‘real money’ is going upstairs and they’re going to starve the government so it can’t help you,” he said.
Ellison pointed to the GOP’s efforts to cut budgets for federal programs that pay for medical research, subsidize health care and protect clean air and water.
But the DNC official also emphasized that Democrats need to promote what they’re for, and not just what they oppose:
“We’re trying to return the Democratic Party to roots, which is economic fairness, justice for all, fairness for all.”
Trying to rev up the base
Ellison’s schedule, and message, are in line with the Missouri Democratic Party’s pivot as it seeks to rev up support among base voters – notably African-Americans, women and labor – while also reaching out to younger progressives who may be at odds with the Democratic establishment.
As part of its urban push, the state Democratic Party plans to open up a St. Louis office shortly.
Missouri Democratic Party chairman Stephen Webber is a former state legislator from Columbia, Mo., who’s only 34. He’s visited 80 Missouri counties as part of his quest to attract new blood while re-energizing the old-timers.
Bringing in Ellison is part of that plan. “A lot of times when you bring in a big person like that, you want to sit him down with donors, to raise money and all that,” Webber said.
“But we wanted to do this different from that. We wanted to show him the ‘real world real reality’ of what’s happening. Not just have him go meet some people who can write big checks.”
Big checks don’t always translate to big turnouts. Democratic activists point to their huge drops in non-presidential years as a key reason why new approaches are needed.
In 2014, more than 300,000 voters in St. Louis and St. Louis County who had voted for president two years earlier didn’t bother to go to the polls. Most are believed to have been Democrats.
Urban turnout also was down in 2016, when Republican Donald Trump handily carried the state – and ignited a huge wave of rural voters.
A replay this fall would be disastrous to Democratic efforts to re-elect U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill and state Auditor Nicole Galloway. The two women are the only Democrats holding statewide office. All of their counterparts were replaced by Republicans in 2016.
State Representative Cora Faith Walker, a St. Louis Democrat, says her party needs to promote a positive message if it wants African-Americans and other urban supporters to vote.
“Well, I think if they’ve got something to turn out for, they will turn out,” she said. “We’ve got an incredible amount of talent that can energize the African-American base.”
Seeking boost from ballot issues
That’s one of the reasons why Ellison joined U.S. Rep. Lacy Clay at a forum in Ferguson promoting a ballot proposal to increase the state’s minimum wage, now $7.70 an hour.
Clay said in an interview afterwards that "raising the minimum wage in Missouri is one of the issues that should drive the discussion leading into the November election."
Many Democrats and progressives also are hoping for November ballot proposals to legalize marijuana for medicinal use and to block a state law, known as right to work, that would curb union rights.
The idea is that causes, not candidates, might be a stronger incentive for some Democrats to get to the polls this fall. Issues like the minimum wage "touch more Missouri lives,'' Clay said.
Newly elected St. Louis Alderwoman Annie Rice, who’s been active in city Democratic politics, says the party needs to focus on its ground game if it wants to whip up voter interest.
“If we don’t show up in these communities. If we don’t show them that we’re there more than just during election time. They’re not going to come out,” Rice said. “And that has huge ripple effects for the whole state.”