When the National Women’s Political Caucus picked St. Louis to host its convention, it was well before the Missouri Legislature passed a ban on abortion after eight weeks of pregnancy — a move that drew national attention and controversy to the state.
Some members of the caucus, which seeks to elect women to office who support abortion rights, wanted to move the convention out of downtown St. Louis. But NWPC President Donna Lent said the furor over the abortion measure solidified the urgency to be in Missouri.
“There was an outcry from members across the country, ‘Why are we going to Missouri?’ And I said, ‘That’s exactly where we need to be today,’” Lent said. “We’re not going to desert the women of Missouri.”
Since the early 1970s, the NWPC has been recruiting, training and supporting women who run for local, state and national offices. The organization has a long history in Missouri, most notably when former Lt. Gov. Harriett Woods was the group’s president.
Training will be a big focus of the four-day event that starts Thursday. The first day, for instance, will emphasize “training the trainers” who help provide guidance to potential candidates. Other sessions will train female candidates on how to effectively use social media, fundraising and voter targeting tactics.
Cathy Allen, vice president of education and training for the NWPC, said there’s been a huge uptick in female candidates since President Donald Trump was elected — which she added is a shift from previous years.
“It used to be we had to talk them into it. That it took two years, two months, average, for a woman to decide to run — as opposed to a guy, who’d go to lunch with a bunch of friends who say, ‘You should run.’ And then, he does,” Allen said. “But in the last two years, it has not been the case.”
Allen went on to say that women “who have always had the actual inkling to run have just felt the ability” to seek elected office.
“Women have a hard time delegating. Women have a hard time not doing everything themselves. They also have a hard time in just trusting someone to do what they know they could,” Allen said. “Our job is to set them free and say, ‘Look, there are things evolving right now that tell us the better way to run a campaign.’”
Lent said Missouri used to rank in the upper of half of states of women in elected office. But her group’s research showed that the state had sunk to 34th. Missouri has one female statewide official, Auditor Nicole Galloway. Former U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill lost her bid for a third term last year.
“So there’s been quite a slide. So we know it’s important to be in Missouri,” Lent said. “You have 114 counties in Missouri. And we’d like to see women elected in all of them.”
Abortion ban impact
Since lawmakers passed the abortion ban on the last day of the 2019 legislative session, there’s been debate about how the plan will affect the 2020 election cycle.
Some lawmakers, like Sen. Jill Schupp, D-Creve Coeur, believe it will energize women to vote for Democratic candidates who support abortion rights. And that, in turn, could chip away at the GOP’s supermajorities in the Missouri House and Senate.
“Women know what they may need — or what their daughter or cousin or aunt may need at some point in their lifetime,” Schupp said. “And then, when we have a bill that doesn’t concern itself with human trafficking, with rape, with incest, I think women are going to be outraged. And I hope that means that they will run for office and show up at the polls — and vote for a candidate who has their best interests at heart.”
Many Republican legislative candidates, though, have been upfront about their opposition to abortion rights — and often make it a centerpiece of their campaigns.
Missouri Republican Party Executive Director Jean Evans said opposition to abortion rights is part of her party’s platform.
“We’re a long way from the election and a lot can happen — so it’s hard to say how this will impact anything,” Evans said. “For our base, they wanted some action on this.”
Evans added that “there’s definitely a sliver of people” who vote primarily on whether a candidate supports or opposes abortion rights.
“I think if you have a ‘R’ behind your name and you’re on the ballot, they expect you to be pro-life,” Evans said. “I know in my area, they’re just sort of like, ‘Well that’s not really an issue we want to talk about — we want to know what you’re going to do down there in terms of our schools or crime.'”
Upcoming elections could showcase whether Schupp or Evans are right. For instance, Rep. Deb Lavender, D-Kirkwood, decided to run against Sen. Andrew Koenig, R-Manchester, after he handled the abortion legislation in the Senate. Many political observers are also paying close attention to the race to replace Evans, who represented a part of St. Louis County in the House before stepping down for the state GOP job.
For her part, Lent said that the only way to start pushing back against more abortion restrictions is to build a bench of women running for office.
“We lost Claire McCaskill in the last election, for crying out loud,” Lent said. “And we need to build a bench. And right now, that is not there in Missouri. And that is why it slid down to 34th-ranked across the country in the number of women in elected office there. So we need to be there.”
The NWPC convention runs Thursday through Sunday at the Westin hotel. Politicians slated to appear at the event include McCaskill, Galloway, St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson and House Minority Leader Crystal Quade, D-Springfield.
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