This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Casting their Republican counterparts as ineffectual extremists, some of Missouri’s top Democratic officials provided a blueprint of sorts at the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner to gain even more ground in the Show Me State.
And Attorney General Chris Koster, a former Republican, pledged to put up a substantial amount of campaign money to help the cause.
The annual event at the Renaissance Hotel downtown is the biggest fundraiser of the year for the Missouri Democratic Party. The soiree – which Missouri Democratic Party chairman Mike Sanders said drew 600 people – featured speeches from all of the party’s statewide officials, as well as a keynote address from Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick.
While the party experienced much success in 2012 – including Sen. Claire McCaskill’s landslide victory over former U.S. Rep. Todd Akin and victory in four statewide races – the party is overwhelmingly outnumbered in the Missouri General Assembly. The GOP possesses super majorities in both legislative chambers, leaving legislative Democrats on the sidelines.
That’s perhaps why some of the speakers at Saturday’s dinner – including McCaskill, D-Mo., and Koster – took special care to lambaste some bills sent to Gov. Jay Nixon’s desk this year.
After saying that she was “embarrassed” by the Missouri legislature, McCaskill, D-Mo., said that state Republicans “embraced the most extreme agenda the state’s ever seen.”
"You know where I heard it? Todd Akin," McCaskill said.
She went onto say that Republicans "have imaginary villains that have been conjured up in the twisted minds of people like Glenn Beck."
"It’s all about negativity and ignorance. It’s all about pessimism. It’s all about with these folks … trying to convince America that if we could just attack our government enough, things will be OK," McCaskill said. "And if that doesn’t work, let’s try to attack our president as a backup."
"That’s what this is about, you guys," she added. "And it’s not who we are."
U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-Missouri, was especially critical of the decision of Missouri GOP legislative leaders not to expand Medicaid under the auspices of the Affordable Care Act. He noted that decision turned away billions of federal dollars, which would have been used to cover the uninsured.
“During my 17 years in Jefferson City, I worked with Democratic governors and Republican governors,” said Clay, who served in the Missouri House and Senate before being elected to Congress. “In all of that time, we never ever took hard-earned tax dollars from our constituents and then gave that money away to other states. But that’s exactly what happened this session.”
Alluding to a quote from his father – former U.S. Rep. William Clay, D-St. Louis – Lacy Clay added: “That’s not just regular stupid. That’s a special kind of stupid.”
“I just have one question,” he added. “What the hell is wrong with them?”
Even Nixon – who typically avoids directly criticizing Republicans at political events – got into the act. He criticized tax cut legislation he vetoed earlier this week, arguing it would force cuts to services down the road. He added that he “vetoed bills that were passed to fix problems that don’t even exist.”
The governor also contended that some bills cause the state “to make our regular appearances on (cable television's) Comedy Central and the Colbert Report.”
But the impact of such measures isn't funny, he went on. "They are very bad public policy,” said Nixon, adding that he had plenty of “ink” left in his pen to veto legislation.
Koster urges legislative focus
Koster’s speech took a different focus from last year’s dinner, when he primarily focused on an expansion to the state’s No Call List.
Since Nixon is barred by term limits from seeking another four years in office, Koster is widely expected to run for the post in 2016.
But Koster -- a former Republican who served in the Missouri Senate -- focused his attention on beefing up Democratic ranks in the Missouri General Assembly in 2014 and beyond.
He said that Democrats "cannot avoid acknowledging the veto-proof majorities that control our state’s capitol."
"In November 2012, our party lost five state House races by less than 500 votes and nine House races by less than a thousand votes," Koster said. "As all of us know, these handful of races represent the difference between a legislature that is veto-proof and one that is not."
Winning legislative races, he said, is the difference between "a party that has a voice in state policy and one that does not."
"And someday, if we cannot turn this trend, then someday races like these will be the difference between a Missouri that maintains quality schools and one that does not," Koster said. "A Missouri that provides women with reproductive rights and one does that not. The difference between a Missouri that shoulders the strength to resist right to work and one that does not."
Koster has made a point in recent years to give his time – and, at times, money – to assist other Democrats. He is expected, for instance, to headline a kickoff event for state Rep. Jill Schupp’s state Senate bid later this week.
And on Saturday, he pledged to give $400,000 over the next four years to help Democrats in the Missouri legislature.
"While our party’s individual statewide victories are significant, they cannot be enough without a legislature to support us," Koster said. "Our individual victories cannot improve the education of a single child or land a single cargo plane at Lambert Field or bring health care to a single unemployed auto worker. Individual success is just that – it’s individual."
"They say that politics is a team sport," he added. "This much I know. Public policy success requires team success. And team success requires team play."
Near the end of her speech, McCaskill called on the crowd to pledge to help legislative candidates. And she promised herself to work hard to help accomplish that goal.
“I’m not going to put my feet up,” she added. “This is not who we are as a state. This is a strong state with good people who work hard and believe in common sense.”
Richard Martin -- a Democratic political consultant -- said Koster's call to arms was unlike anything he'd ever seen in his roughly two decades in Missouri politics.
"There has never been a candidate for governor or a candidate for any statewide office that's more eloquently stated the importance of the entire Democratic Party and the General Assembly especially," said Martin, who worked for then-Rep. Margaret Donnelly, D-Richmond Heights, in her 2008 bid against Koster.
Next year, Democrats have to defend two state Senate seats in Jefferson County and central Missouri – and try to stop the GOP from picking up even more House seats.
Indeed, Martin said taking back the legislature "is going to take resources and is going to be hard."
"He wasn't suggesting it's going to be easy," Martin said. "It's not just him giving a speech and rallying the cause. But between him and Sen. McCaskill, you both heard them championing some kind of a message. It's what we've got to do as a party and it's what we've got to do as a state."
"You commit to the right causes and you get the best results you can hope for," he added.
Patrick urges Democrats to keep the faith
Saturday's appearance by Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick marked the second straight year that a Democratic governor from another state keynoted Jefferson Jackson Days.
Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear headlined last year's event.
xxxBill Greenblatt I UPI Governor of Massachusetts Deval Patrick speaks during the annual Jefferson-Jackson dinner in St. Louis on June 8, 2013.
While Beshear, like Nixon, was an example of how a Democrat can thrive in a bright-red state, Patrick governs one of the most Democratic-friendly states in the union. Every single member of the Massachusetts congressional delegation is a Democrat, as are all of the Bay State’s statewide officials.
But Patrick – who won gained some national recognition during the Boston Marathon Bombings – reminded the crowd that the GOP controlled the Massachusetts governor’s office for 16 years.
And he used part of his speech to shade GOP priorities as wrongheaded.
“When you cut through all their slogans and sound bites, all today’s Republicans are saying is that we just shrink government, cut taxes, crush unions and wait – all will be well,” Patrick said. “Of course, history has proven that thesis wrong time after time after time.”
And he also said that Democrats needed to be “clear as what we are for,” as opposed to simply saying why Republicans aren’t the party the electorate should choose.
“The question is not what’s wrong with them, but what’s right with us -- what do we believe in,” Patrick said. “If we want to win elections, if we want to move our country forward, if we want to earn the privilege to lead, we need to stand up for what we believe.”
He went onto say that what the country craves and what Democrats are so poised to offer “is better than the politics of convenience and cleverness.”
“It’s the politics of conviction. Some of our choices in Massachusetts and some of those facing our nation make even some of us here uncomfortable,” Patrick said. “But the times demand more than just making each other comfortable. The times demand that we connect with our highest and best values and face up to the hard choices before us.”