As Jean Peters Baker spoke to a packed room at the Missouri Democratic Party’s Truman Dinner last weekend, she acknowledged the obvious: The past few years have been bruising for a party that used to dominate state politics.
Republicans up and down the ballot generally prevailed in the past three election cycles — leaving Democrats on the outside looking in when it comes to policy and leadership. But Baker, chairwoman of the Missouri Democratic Party, said this isn’t a time to sulk. Instead, Democrats should use the 2020 election cycle as a prime opportunity for a comeback.
“We both know that we have a lot of work to do. And we know that elections are how we keep score in this business,” Baker said. “We’ve had our share of setbacks in Missouri. But we believe, and we believe the numbers show, there’s light. There is light at the end of this tunnel.”
Democrats are putting much of the responsibility for a turnaround on state Auditor Nicole Galloway, who made her bid for Missouri governor official earlier this month. The party’s leaders believe she’s excited most of the party’s factions for what is expected to be a challenging campaign against Republican Gov. Mike Parson.
And while even the most stalwart Democrats aren’t expecting a complete reversal of fortune in one election cycle, the party’s leaders contend they have to start somewhere. And for many, “somewhere” is the 2020 election cycle.
“It’s going to have to be a message that resonates with the state,” said state Sen. Brian Williams, D-University City. “Democrats have to be able to state the case on how we’re going to enhance the quality of life of everyday Missourians.”
The setbacks that Baker alluded to in her speech are daunting: Republicans now hold both of the state’s U.S. Senate seats and all but one statewide office. The GOP also has huge majorities in the Missouri House and Senate, giving Democrats little ability to get their policies seriously considered.
And it’s not hard to figure out why: Democratic candidates are performing dismally in swing parts of the state like Jefferson and Buchanan counties. They’re also getting trounced in rural counties, including past strongholds like northeast and southeast Missouri.
Clem Smith, Missouri Democratic Party vice chairman, says any rebuild requires bringing suburban and rural voters back into the fold.
“You can’t just focus on St. Louis, Kansas City and a little bit in the middle,” said Smith, a former state lawmaker from St. Louis County. “It’s got to be everybody. So as a Democratic Party, we’ve implemented new strategies of going out and meeting people where they are instead of expecting people to come here or having a constant voting bloc.”
Some of the party’s leaders contend there needs to be a renewed emphasis on boosting turnout among African Americans, who for decades have been Missouri Democrats’ most reliable voting bloc. That was the key takeaway from state Rep. Kevin Windham’s Truman Dinner speech when he accepted the Young Democrat of the Year award.
“The safe district where we’re sure that the Democrat will win must be just as important as the swing districts,” said Windham, D-Hillsdale. “Because people are people, and ‘safe’ should translate to loyal constituency — not less time and resources expended. We should add more legs to our Democratic big tent by strengthening our foundation.”
Part of the way forward will depend on how Galloway does in next year’s gubernatorial campaign. After her first major speech as a gubernatorial candidate received a warm reception from the party faithful, Galloway promised to take the fight against Parson to all corners of the state.
“I think there’s a lot of excitement and energy out there — and a desire for change,” Galloway said. “We don’t have to settle for the way things are, and people are sick of it. And I am willing to fight for that.”
The Trump Factor
In many respects, voter sentiment about national politics tends to dictate the direction of Missouri election cycles — especially during presidential contests.
In 2016, outside groups pumped millions into Missouri to help Democrats like Chris Koster and Jason Kander in statewide races. But Donald Trump’s landslide victory in the state provided the necessary coattails for a Republican sweep. And Trump’s relative popularity likely helped Josh Hawley defeat Democratic U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill in 2018.
That dynamic will likely continue into 2020. If Missouri voters still feel good about Trump and his policies, Republican candidates like Parson will likely benefit. But that might change if Missouri residents sour on the president or if the economy lags — which is exactly what happened in 2008 when Democrats won nearly every statewide contest in Missouri.
“Obviously the national politics plays a role. Whomever our Democratic nominee for president is plays a role,” said former Democratic state Rep. Vicki Englund, who will make a decision on whether to run for state treasurer in the coming weeks. “But I’ll tell you, even just before I was elected, Democrats in the House had the majority. So there are a lot of former elected members of the House that are Democrats — former Democrats elected to the Senate who are still active in their communities. So we know there are Democrats out there.”
Because there’s not a U.S. Senate race on the ballot next year and neither party is expected to vigorously fight for Missouri’s electoral votes, Republicans and Democrats may not have a huge influx of outside money to help their campaigns. But that doesn't mean that Galloway will be completely isolated, especially if groups like the Democratic Governors Association provide outstide help.
DGA spokesman David Turner said Galloway stands up "for common sense policies that even the playing field, are fiscally responsible, and most importantly, improve the lives of Missourians."
“The DGA is excited about Nicole Galloway’s run for governor, and fully committed to turn the page on the failed Greitens/Parson era," said Turner, referring to former Gov. Eric Greitens.
Still, Republican incumbency means that the party will start with a big financial advantage. Candidates for statewide office, like Parson, and legislative campaign committees, such as the House Republican Campaign Committee, have more campaign money in the bank than their Democratic counterparts.
Missouri Republican Party Chairman Kay Hoflander said her party’s fundamentals are strong, especially in rural counties that GOP candidates will need to recapture next cycle.
“We haven’t lost our base. They’re not leaving,” Hoflander said. “And in fact, I see greater strengths and growth in counties.”
Galloway isn’t the only person seeking to help Missouri Democrats rebound.
Missouri Democrats in the House and Senate are seeking to finally gain some significant ground, especially in places like St. Louis County that have trended away from the GOP during Trump’s presidency.
Much like in 2018, Democrats are seeking to find candidates in many of the state’s legislative districts — even ones where the Republican candidate will likely win. That could increase turnout for statewide candidates.
“However many people go out to vote for them, that only helps the statewide ticket. It will get more votes for Nicole,” said state Rep. LaDonna Appelbaum, D-St. Louis County. “I think if we had more Democrats elected, it would maybe, possibly go back to some civility between the two parties.”
Other leaders like House Minority Leader Crystal Quade of Springfield are banking on a backlash to some GOP actions, such as passing a measure banning most abortions at eight weeks of pregnancy.
While Missouri voters have continued to elect state lawmakers that oppose abortion rights, Quade noted that even some key Republican political figures, such as TAMKO chief executive David Humphreys, believe the proposal goes too far.
“I think it is going to be helpful because it allows us to really explain the narrative beyond just abortion, but all of the other things — like kids getting kicked off Medicaid,” Quade said. “All of these continuous extremisms that’s going on in Jefferson City, we’ll be able to get that message out across the state.”
An early test of how the abortion plan is resonating in the suburbs could come this November, when Democrat Trish Gunby squares off against Republican Lee Ann Pitman for a special election in St. Louis County’s 99th House District. That area, which includes Manchester and Valley Park, has historically elected Republican lawmakers, but the county is one of the few places in Missouri where Democratic candidates are gaining ground.
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