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In 19th Senate District Race, COVID-19 And Health Care Take Center Stage

As the race for Missouri’s 19th Senate district heads into its final stretch, there is little surprise as to the issues dominating debate in the contest: COVID-19 and health care.

Democrat Judy Baker, a Columbia native, health care educator and former Missouri state representative, is challenging incumbent Republican Sen. Caleb Rowden for the seat, which encompasses Boone and Cooper Counties.

In campaigning to unseat Rowden, who has held the influential position of Senate majority leader since 2019, Baker has spent considerable time highlighting public health issues that are also at the forefront of national politics.

Foremost among her criticisms of Rowden and the Republican-led state legislature has been their handling of the COVID-19 pandemic in the state, which she has characterized as lethargic and insufficient. Rowden counters that lawmakers moved with “lightning speed” to get aid to Missouri residents.

That dispute over the best plan for coping with the economic and public health impacts of the pandemic was most recently on display Wednesday night at a debate between the two candidates hosted by the Columbia Chamber of Commerce.

Baker touted the COVID-19 response and recovery plan her campaign released in September, which includes proposals to develop unemployment solutions as federal aid ends, require a state-maintained stockpile of personal protective equipment and ensure vaccinations and treatments for the virus are cost-free for patients, among other provisions.

Baker also invoked President Donald Trump’s name multiple times throughout the debate, criticizing his dismissiveness of COVID-19 and comparisons of the virus to the flu. She stressed the importance of leaders modeling safe behavior and also called on Rowden to denounce the president’s words.

Rowden dismissed Baker’s plan as “visions and platitudes with no real understanding of how to actually accomplish them,” adding multiple times, “Judy’s not running against Donald Trump, she’s running against me.”

As far as his plan for dealing with the pandemic in the legislature moving forward, Rowden said the key is to have both a short- and long-term vision.

“There’s no secret that COVID-19 has absolutely changed the landscape for all of us,” he said. “So resources are important in the short term, but there has to be a long-term vision for what the new economy looks like. And I think that includes the things that we’ve been doing all along.”

He cited the budget passed by the state in a special session in April and the CARES Act funding it allocated to local governments as an important first step.

He also spoke favorably of the prospect of an additional federal stimulus package, though acknowledged that he’d like to see the federal government “get its act together” in that regard.

In an interview, Rowden’s criticism of Baker’s platform as unrealistic was one that he returned to repeatedly. “I think Judy says a lot of great things, but her ability to pay for them and her ability to functionally actually do anything is really not there.”

Asked if there’s anything he would have recommended the state do differently in its handling of COVID-19, Rowden demurred. He said he approves of masks and social-distancing but doesn’t have a “strong opinion” relating to measures like a statewide mask mandate.

“It’s a really, really difficult balance to find between knowing what is good for a community as it relates to masking and social-distancing. ... The other side isn’t entirely honest about the nuance that comes with those things,” he said.

In response to Rowden’s criticism of her COVID-19 plan as unrealistic, Baker touted her years of experience in health care policy and management.

“They have no plan,” she said. “The goal is to become a senator and implement my ideas with my colleagues in the Senate. I believe that I am the best candidate to be able to do that. You have a guy who has no idea, who is calling out someone who has ideas.”

Baker added that if she is elected, she wants to build a reputation as “the health care senator.”

That desire extends to her position on Medicaid expansion, which Missouri voters passed via ballot measure in August and which Baker wholeheartedly supports.

Rowden consistently opposed Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act prior to its passage but said he has no plans to delay its implementation next year.

He did, however, express concern about the short-term implications for the state’s budget while acknowledging the expansion could have longer-term economic benefits.

“I am telling you unequivocally that beyond any shadow of any doubt, that in the short term (Medicaid expansion) will absolutely have an impact on the core funding of the University of Missouri,” Rowden said.

He added that as majority leader he is in a unique position of leverage to protect funding for higher education.

Baker said she doesn’t see the issue as a binary choice between expansion and budget cuts, saying the economic benefits of Medicaid expansion have been proven in other states.

As a broader theme of her campaign, Baker has repeatedly emphasized what she views as a lack of adequate representation of the will of Missouri voters by the Republican legislature. She has been sharply critical of partisan gerrymandering and Amendment 3, which would undo key changes to the redistricting process approved by voters in the Clean Missouri amendment.

“It’s time to have representation in government that actually responds to the will of the people,” she said.

Rowden disagrees with that characterization, saying compromise and actual results, such as ensuring funding for MU, have been central to his governing approach and legislative track record.

“I would push back a little bit on the point that maybe we are not in lockstep with the people of Missouri,” Rowden said. “The response to that has been that they keep electing us in fairly sizable majorities, and in districts like ours and others.”