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Politics

Missouri Democrats Consider Their Future

Missouri Democrats haven’t controlled the Legislature and Governor’s office since 2000. Missouri was a purple state where Democrats won competitive races within tight margins.

Today, the former-battleground state is now solidly red, with three pockets of blue. There is only one Democrat in statewide office and Missouri’s legislature and the governor’s office are in the GOP’s hands.

“It seems almost as if folks were just kind of blindsided by this machine that the Republicans had been creating on the campaign side,” state House Minority Leader Representative Crystal Quade said.

Republicans in the state worked hard to get to where they are now. During their underdog years, Republicans steadily built the party’s infrastructure. Part of that was building name recognition with local candidates and building a strong fundraising arm. The House Republican Campaign Committee raised over $3 million in the 2006 and 2008 election cycles, respectively. In the same cycles, House Democrats barely broke $1 million.

“The Democrats had controlled Missouri for so long that there wasn’t ever a need to create some sort of funding apparatus because they just always thought that they were going to win,” Quade said. “I have to give so much credit to the other side of the aisle because they dug in and did the work.”

The Democratic Party in Missouri is operating in a political environment that currently does not allow for its success. For at least the last decade, Missouri Republicans benefitted from gerrymandered districts, a Trump wave and shift of cultural values where rural moderates became rural conservatives.

This is all part of Missouri’s unique political characteristics, according to Peverill Squire, a political science professor at the University of Missouri.

“Right now certainly the Democrats are in a difficult position, and it’s unlikely their difficulties will disappear anytime soon,” Squire said.

Since 2002, the party began building on its own success every election cycle, GOP consultant Gregg Keller said.

“We built on our 2016 gains and then did the same thing in 2020 all over again,” Keller said. “And now we’re in a position where we won every statewide office last cycle.”

For the upcoming 2022 election, the House Democratic Campaign Committee plans to raise $2 million to support House candidates. The money will go toward setting up the basics of House campaigns such as mail designs, website creation and campaign planning. Quade says the party does not expect to immediately flip seats but to make headway little by little, cycle by cycle until it results in Democratic wins.

Randy Dunn, executive director of the Missouri Democratic Party said it’s too early to identify specific districts that ought to be targeted, which strategies will best reach voters or establish the party’s overall funding goal for this cycle.

“We certainly have goals to make sure that we are fundraising in a way that will allow us to share our message throughout the state, and so we will be developing that in the coming months,” Dunn said.

The House campaign committee wasn’t always fully utilized, according to Quade. Term limits make it hard to have consistent leadership, which is why Quade ran for a position that is typically reserved for senior legislators. 

“We’re often here for two years, and then we move on to something else,” Quade said. “I’m doing this position so that we can have that consistency of investment of time and energy creating that apparatus.”

Moving forward something has to change, and that starts with action, liberal political consultant Rosettta Okohoson said.

Part of that is making the campaign accessible to voters outside of metropolitan areas such as St. Louis and Kansas City. As the pandemic consumed the world, campaigns were forced to shift to online events. Door knocking campaigns were replaced with enhanced phone banking and text campaigns.

Nothing is as effective as knocking on doors and building in-person relationships, especially when many rural voters have poor or no access to high-speed broadband internet, Okohoson said. 

“What I will say that the Missouri Democratic party needs to do better and must do better is that this has got to be about exciting and invigorating and engaging with people and that means getting off your butt and talking to people,” Okohoson said.

In the meantime, Missouri Democrats will have to do damage control to break into the GOP's rural coalition. Strategically, Missouri Republicans have successfully convinced voters that the national Democratic platform and the Missouri Democratic platform are the same, according to Keller. So when rural voters think of Missouri Democrats they might think about defunding the police rather than Medicaid expansion.

“There’s a sense where you almost feel bad for Missouri Democrats because while they're not directly responsible for it necessarily, it makes it impossible for them to win any office really,” Keller said.

For the future of the party, Quade says the party will have to redefine success.

“Success is not about flipping that seat,” Quade said. “Success might be about gaining three or four points in the next legislative cycle and then gaining three or four points the next time and then three to four points the next time and looking at the long game.”

On the national scale, U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt announced that he would not run for reelection, giving way for a likely-crowded Republican primary. Names such as Jay Ashcroft and former Missouri governor Eric Greitens have floated as potential contenders.

There might also be a big crowd on the opposite side of the aisle. So far, retired Marine Lucas Kunce and Scott Sifton have officially stated their intention to run for the seat. Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas released a statement alluding to a potential bid for the statewide seat.