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Upset local Democrats privately talk up Montee to take over as state party chief

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 16, 2010 - To hear some St. Louis area Democrats talk, the buzz around outgoing state Auditor Susan Montee's public observation that she hopes to remain in "public service'' doesn't center on a possible bid for another elective office in 2012.

Rather, Montee is being touted as a possible choice to take over as state Democratic Party chairman, as part of a move to rebuild a state party structure that is summarily derided -- in private, if not in public -- by Democrats upset over their party's heavy losses Nov. 2.

Among the defeated: Montee, who lost to Republican Tom Schweich.

Although declining to go public, a number of prominent area Democrats said Monday that action is needed to prevent a replay in 2012.

Montee and her top aides have not responded to repeated requests by the Beacon for comment, ever since she sent out an intriguing email to allies Monday morning.

Montee first made a circumspect observation about Schweich's decision to ask all department staff to submit resumes, a move that some Jefferson City veterans say is unprecedented, at least in recent decades.

Montee then reflected on her own future:

"A number of lawyers and accountants have called inquiring about my interest. So have those whom I think of as the true stalwart hearts of the Missouri Democratic Party. To lawyers, accountants, and partisans alike, I have said the same thing. I am going to keep my options open for a little while longer, but my primary inclination is to stay in public service."

Montee became the first down-ballot incumbent in at least 35 years to lose re-election, which prominent Democrats and political analysts attribute -- at least in part -- to Democratic U.S. Senate nominee Robin Carnahan's 14 percentage-point loss to Republican Roy Blunt.

Missouri Democrats lost 17 additional seats in the state House and three more in the state Senate, which gives the state GOP an historic edge in both chambers.

The private grousing among prominent Democrats in the St. Louis area centers on two issues:

  • the apparent lack of an Election Day ground game by the state party or national Democratic groups, which left the get-out-the-vote effort to individual Democratic candidates and labor unions.
  • a perception that little was done, until right before the election, to energize particular parts of the Democratic base, most notably African-American voters in St. Louis and St. Louis County.

Although the details are being debated, area Democrats agree that the turnout effort in the county -- particularly the northern half -- was left solely to St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley's campaign. Some activists say his campaign had to trim his late-in-the-campaign TV ad buys to pay for last-minute field operations when it became clear that no other Democratic groups or candidates were doing much, outside of the effort in the 3rd congressional district on behalf of U.S. Rep. Russ Carnahan, D-St. Louis.

Dooley ended up barely defeating Republican Bill Corrigan, while Carnahan narrowly won re-election over Republican Ed Martin.

Montee's name is being floated as a possible replacement for current state Democratic Party chairman Craig Hosmer, a Springfield, Mo. lawyer and former state legislator. Blogger Dave Drebes first mentioned some of the whispers on his subscription-only Missouri Scout site last week, some Democrats say. Hosmer could not be reached Monday.

One obvious reason for talking up Montee: She is close to U.S. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., who has announced plans to run for re-election in 2012. Montee also is on good terms with Gov. Jay Nixon, a fellow Democrat who also will be on the 2012 ballot. (McCaskill and Nixon are seen here conversing quietly during a state Democratic event last winter.)

As governor, Nixon is the titular head of the Missouri Democratic Party. But he likely will feel some heat soon from McCaskill or her allies -- particularly since McCaskill already is being mentioned nationally as among "the most vulnerable'' senators on the 2012 ballot.

Montee is seen by some of McCaskill's allies as someone the senator would trust to beef up the state party's operations -- and pocketbook -- for 2012. McCaskill has made no secret of her concern about the Democrats' performance, in Missouri and nationally, on Nov. 2.

McCaskill controlled the Missouri Democratic Party apparatus during her 2006 bid for the U.S. Senate, having taken over right after she ousted then-Gov. Bob Holden in August 2004 during her unsuccessful quest for governor. After her Senate victory, McCaskill happily turned over the state party operations to Nixon in 2007.

McCaskill and Nixon for years had strained relations, but generally have gotten along well -- communicating often, by both accounts -- during the past few years.

Both also were low-key in this year's November contests, as Robin Carnahan took primary control of the state party. McCaskill and Nixon appeared with Carnahan at the last major Democratic get-out-the-vote event in Forest Park (a low-turnout event that foreshadowed the party's drubbing 48 hours later).

The only Republican, so far, to openly talk about taking on Nixon in 2012 is Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder.

But a crowd of McCaskill's likely rivals already has formed.

Her potential Republican rivals include: former Sen. Jim Talent, R-Mo., who was ousted by McCaskill in 2006; former state Treasurer Sarah Steelman, who lost a bid for governor in 2008; and former state Republican Party chairman Ann Wagner, the ex-ambassador to Luxembourg and former Republican National Committee co-chair who admits considering a run for office in 2012.

Talent and Wagner have both confirmed their interest in recent interviews with the Beacon.

But Wagner now is attracting national attention over reports in recent days that she is making calls about possibly challenging RNC chairman Michael Steele.

If Wagner ends up as RNC chairman, instead of a candidate, allies say she is likely to make sure that plenty of national resources flow into Missouri against McCaskill and, by association, Nixon.

Which would mean that Montee, if she is indeed recruited for the state Democratic Party job, could find her hands full.

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