Republicans won three out of four special elections held Tuesday night for vacant seats in the Missouri House, giving them a 115-47 edge over Democrats.
Yet it’s the one they lost in the St. Louis area that is receiving national attention — and setting off another round of infighting among Missouri Republicans.
Democrat Mike Revis, a 27-year-old procurement manager at Anheuser-Busch Inbev, squeaked out a narrow victory in the Jefferson County House seat vacated last September after the Republican incumbent resigned.
But he did more than just flip the seat from Republican to Democrat.
Revis emerged victorious in a district President Donald Trump carried by nearly 30 points in 2016. And he won in a county that, while labor friendly and historically Democratic leaning, has been dominated by Republicans for nearly a decade.
Democrats, who have been battered in rural Missouri over the last 10 years, say Tuesday’s results are a clear indication that their party is more united, motivated and mobilized than Republicans heading into a midterm election this fall.
“There’s a new rush of energy behind Democrats in Missouri,” said Stephen Webber, chairman of the Missouri Democratic Party.
Republicans are largely downplaying the outcome. Turnout was low, the weather was bad, special elections are unpredictable and their party still holds massive super majorities in both the state House and Senate as well as controls all but two statewide offices.
“House Republicans are pleased to have captured 3 of 4 special elections in Missouri tonight,” House Speaker Todd Richardson, a Poplar Bluff Republican, said in a statement Tuesday night. “On a day that began with winter weather conditions, we are disappointed to narrowly lose a district that had been historically held by Democrats until recent years.”
Since the 2016 election, Democrats have picked up 35 state legislative seats across the country and flipped the governorship in New Jersey and a U.S. Senate seat in Alabama. In Missouri, Democrats have lost six of seven special legislative elections held since 2016, but they’ve largely outperformed previous Democratic showings in each race.
After Democrats flipped a seat in the Wisconsin state Senate that had been held by a Republican since 2001, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker called the results a “wake-up call” for his party.
The Missouri special election victory “continues the trend we saw in 2017,” said Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez. “Democrats winning across the country as voters reject a Republican agenda that prioritizes the wealthiest at the expense of hardworking families.”
U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, widely considered among the most vulnerable Democrats running for re-election this fall, took note of Revis’ victory, tweeting congratulations to him Tuesday night.
McCaskill won Jefferson County in 2012 by 14 points, and she’ll need a strong showing in the county again this fall to hold on to her seat.
One longtime Republican strategist didn’t mince words about who he believes should get the lion’s share of the blame for Democrats’ good fortune Tuesday night.
Scott Dieckhaus, a GOP consultant and former executive director of the Missouri House Republican Campaign Committee, said the scandals that have consumed Gov. Eric Greitens in recent weeks cost his party a legislative seat.
“I am going to say what no one else is right now,” Dieckhaus tweeted Tuesday night. “Missouri Republicans just lost a MO House seat because of (Eric Greitens) and his refusal to put our party over his ego.”
In an interview with The Star, Dieckhaus said his conclusion was based on polling numbers.
Trump has consistently had a positive job approval in the district, Dieckhaus said. Polls show a generic Republican candidate, and the specific GOP candidate in the race, also had good numbers, he said.
But after news broke last month that the governor had cheated on his wife in 2015, and that he was being accused of threatening to blackmail the woman to keep her from revealing the affair, Greitens’ numbers plummeted, Dieckhaus said.
“The candidates’ numbers held steady. The generic ballot held steady. The president held steady,” he said. “The one thing that changed was the governor.”
Greitens, Dieckhaus said, should have resigned.
“The party spent a lot of time, money and effort getting Republicans elected in Jefferson County over the last decade,” he said. “We put so much energy into this county and it was literally given away because of the governor’s ego and his refusal to do what’s best for the party and step aside.”
Revis told St. Louis Public Radio that his victory wasn’t about Greitens’ scandals or Trump, it was “concerns over attacks on the labor community and attacks on our public education system.”
State Rep. Peter Merideth, a St. Louis Democrat who leads the Democrats’ House Victory Committee, said Tuesday’s results will “echo the halls of the Capitol and send a message to every Republican incumbent — if you keep putting special interests over the people of Missouri, we are coming for your seat.”
Not so fast, said Eddy Justice, treasurer for the House Republican Campaign Committee.
The Republican candidate in Jefferson County may have underperformed when compared to Trump in 2016, Justice said. But he ran only seven points behind Mitt Romney’s performance in 2012.
“I understand the desire of Democrats to look for anything to get excited about,” Justice said. “This is not the beginning of the tide turning for Democrats in Missouri.”
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why voters behaved the way they did in a low-turnout special election, said Robynn Kuhlmann, political science professor at the University of Central Missouri.
But “voting is habit forming,” Kuhlmann said, and the fact that Democrats are getting their voters motivated to turn out for a special election in February shows “they may have a lot of momentum heading into the midterm.”