West St. Louis County House Race Could Be A Political Barometer | St. Louis Public Radio

West St. Louis County House Race Could Be A Political Barometer

Oct 29, 2019

In the special state House elections, Missouri’s political watchers are focused on a west St. Louis County race between Republican Lee Ann Pitman and Democrat Trish Gunby.

While the outcome of the Pitman-Gunby race won’t make much of a difference in how the Missouri House operates, it could provide a glimpse into St. Louis County’s political future — and how the area may respond to the Republican and Democratic statewide contenders.

On a cool and cloudy afternoon, Pitman is pounding the pavement. She’s traversing through a Manchester subdivision in an attempt to keep the 99th House District in Republican hands. 

As she encounters friendly potential voters, and a couple of dogs, Pitman is trying to remind people to go to the polls on Nov. 5. Even though there are five other special elections happening that day, none of them is considered competitive.

“When I’ve been going door to door, I find myself able to relate to the community easily because I’ve been a working parent — and I’m talking to people who are working parents,” Pitman said. “And I have been very well received.”

Gunby, too, says she’s been getting a bullish response in the district that encompasses places including Manchester, Twin Oaks and Valley Park. Even though the 99th has been in Republican hands for years, Gunby believes a state and national backlash is opening up a chance to turn it blue.

“I lead with, ‘I’m running for state rep; I’m the Democratic candidate.’ And many times I’m met with, 'Thank goodness,’” Gunby said. “Because I think there is a sense of divisiveness that’s coming from a national perspective from our president and from a Jeff City perspective. And just what people are hearing about both sides not talking to one another.”

Trish Gunby speaks with a 99th district resident while knocking on doors on Saturday morning.
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio

Making it easier to vote

Gunby worked as a marketing professional for Citicorp Mortgage and Purina. She’s been politically involved for some time, especially when it comes to voting-rights issues.

When Jean Evans resigned to become executive director of the Missouri Republican Party, Gunby was asked to jump into the contest. Residents of the district elected Evans twice, but they’ve also voted for Democratic candidates like U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill.

“This was something unknowingly I’ve been preparing for about six or seven years,” Gunby said. “It was not something that this election happened and then I got involved. I was involved, and then this election happened.” 

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If she wins, Gunby wants to spend her time in Jefferson City figuring how to make it easier to vote — including simplifying the voter registration process. 

“Surrounding states like Illinois have automatic voting registration online, same-day voting registration,” Gunby said. “There are so many ways that we can make it easier for folks to vote.” 

Gunby is also a proponent of expanding Medicaid and bolstering background checks on firearms purchasers. She also wants to change how Missouri is perceived by potential businesses — pointing to how the NAACP placed a travel advisory for Missouri and how gay, lesbian and transgender people can be fired from their jobs with no legal recourse.

“I think there are communities that are not being served,” Gunby said. “So that sends a message that we are really not a progressive, inclusive, welcoming state and community.”

Lee Ann Pitman greets a resident of the 99th district while knocking on doors on Friday afternoon.
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio

Maintaining conservative values

Like Gunby, Pitman has been involved behind the scenes in local politics for some time. Besides being a senior accountant for Protective Life Corp., Pitman volunteered in state representative and school board contests.

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“Back in February when the seat became open, I was approached by a couple of individuals to consider running for the office,” Pitman said. “At that time, I met with my family and started to think about how it’s really important for conservative values to be maintained in West County and District 99. And that I would be a good candidate for that.”

Pitman said economic development would be her primary focus if she prevails. She said she wants to make it easier for small businesses in the state to operate.

And Pitman also wants to focus on helping veterans deal with post-traumatic stress disorder.

“My dad served in Korea. My nephew is serving in the special forces. And I think it’s just really important that we try to help them,” Pitman said. “They don’t realize the services that are available for veterans as they become seniors — when they need nursing care, that there’s home health care available to them. So I think we need to work and promote that more to get them the help they need.”

The stakes

Some see the 99th District contest as a referendum on abortion rights, especially after Gov. Mike Parson signed legislation into law banning most abortions at eight weeks of pregnancy. Pitman is endorsed by Missouri Right to Life, while several abortion-rights groups are supporting Gunby. Both candidates, though, say they haven’t heard much about abortion rights as they go door-to-door. 

“I will tell you that there are Planned Parenthood signs in my district,” Gunby said. “I can’t remember in recent memory, and by that I would say 25 years, ever seeing a Planned Parenthood sign in anyone’s yard.” 

Lee Ann Pitman greets a voter while canvassing in the 99th district.
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio

In some respects, the two parties see the race as more than just about one issue — but about the vitality of Republicans and Democrats throughout Missouri. Gunby in particular is getting help from prominent Democratic politicians, like state Auditor Nicole Galloway. Galloway, who's seeking the Democratic nomination for governor, revved up Gunby’s volunteers before a weekend canvass.

“We’ve got the best campaign. We’ve got the best candidate," Galloway said. “And we got the best volunteers who are willing to do the hard work to make sure we flip this seat from red to blue.” 

St. Louis Alderwoman Sarah Martin believes that a Democratic win could provide a confidence boost for statewide contenders like Galloway, who needs a strong turnout in the suburbs to outflank Parson. 

“There’s just so much talk about suburban women — where they are and will they flip and will they take out Trump and where they are,” said Martin, who has helped canvass for Gunby. “And this is certainly an indicator. Here is a district of suburban moms.”

Pitman is getting assistance from some heavy hitters in the Missouri Republican Party. State Treasurer Scott Fitzpatrick helped Pitman in going door to door, as did a slew of GOP House members.

“I know I’m going to make the biggest difference by knocking on those doors, talking to people and getting my message across,” Pitman said. 

Trish Gunby and her husband, Mark, speak with a voter while canvassing in the 99th district.
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio

With turnout expected to be low, Republican state Rep. Shamed Dogan of Ballwin said the result of the Pitman-Gunby contest could come down to who has the better campaign organization — and who does better connecting one-on-one with voters.

“I think voters there are focused on what a lot of suburban voters are, which is, 'How is this candidate going to help my pocketbook; how is this person’s outlook on the world?'” Dogan said. “And I think at the end of the day, it’s more of a conservative district than it is a left-leaning district.”

Elsewhere in St. Louis County, Democrat Michael Person is running against Libertarian Nick Kasoff in the 74th House District. And in St. Louis, Democrat Rasheen Aldridge is running unopposed for the 78th District House seat.

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St. Louis Public Radio's Julie O'Donoghue contributed information for this story.

Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum

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