Democratic Rep. Lauren Arthur prevailed by a double-digit margin over Republican Rep. Kevin Corlew in a special election for a state Senate seat Tuesday night.
Republicans won’t risk losing control of the Missouri Senate on Tuesday, but Arthur's victory in a Northland special election could signal the GOP’s grasp on Jefferson City has weakened after months of drama surrounding former Gov. Eric Greitens.
Arthur, a former teacher from Kansas City, beat Corlew with 59.6 percent to 40.3 percent of the vote to win the special election for Missouri's 17th Senate district. She's the first Democrat to hold the seat in more than a decade.
“For too long the priorities and pet projects of billionaires and corporations have been put ahead of investing in Missourians. We sent a message loud and clear that we demand great public schools ... and a transparent and responsive state government," she said in her victory speech.
Republicans control 24 of the 34 seats in the Missouri Senate. Arthur's victory brings the Democratic total in the chamber to 10.
Arthur focused her campaign on labor rights and combating inequality, a message she said resonated with Northland voters.
"I think we spoke about issues that mattered to them. We spoke about working families and how they’re being left behind," Arthur said in a phone call Tuesday night as she celebrated at Paul and Jack's Tavern in North Kansas City with more than 100 supporters.
"I think the key really depended on our volunteers. This win didn’t just happen. We had people show up, knock doors and write postcards," she said.
Corlew, an attorney and former member of the North Kansas City school board, announced his concession before 9 p.m. Tuesday.
“Unfortunately, it didn’t go our way this night, but that doesn’t mean that we won’t continue to work on the values and that objectives that we have to make sure that we continue to work for good-paying jobs in the Northland,” Corlew told his supporters at his campaign headquarters in Gladstone.
“I wish her nothing but the best,” he said of Arthur.
Both candidates have served in the Missouri House since 2015.
The election was to fill the seat vacated when former Sen. Ryan Silvey, a Republican, joined the state’s public service commission after five years in the Senate.
Silvey won re-election in 2016 by more than a 20-point margin, but the special election to replace him has taken place as the state’s Republican Party has had to grapple with the fallout from Greitens’ multiple scandals and resignation only days before voters went to the polls.
Republican consultant Gregg Keller said last month that if Corlew lost the race the blame would fall squarely on Greitens' shoulders.
Arthur said last week prior to Greitens' resignation that she commonly received questions while knocking on doors from voters who were perplexed by why Greitens was still in office.
"Eric Greitens represented a lot of what’s wrong with Jefferson City and in that way the people of Clay County rejected the corruption, the dysfunction," she said Tuesday.
Corlew has downplayed the importance of Greitens to the race and has said that voters are more interested in issues such as education and infrastructure.
He had campaigned on his record of bipartisanship in Jefferson City, calling himself "a truly independent voice for the Northland."
Sam Cooper, the executive director of the Missouri Republican Party, tempered expectations for the race Tuesday. “It’s a special election in the middle of June, so it really just comes to turning folks out. It’s a tough district," he said.
President Donald Trump won the district by 5 points in 2016, but Cooper noted that Democrat Jason Kander won the district in the U.S. Senate race by 11 points. “It’s not an overly Republican-leaning district,” he said.
Cooper warned against extrapolating any predictions for the party’s chances in November when it will seek to oust U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., from the U.S. Senate and retain its supermajority in the Missouri House.
McCaskill said in a statement Tuesday night that "Lauren's 19-point margin shows that Missourians are ready for candidates that will fight for working families and education, rather than being part of the sideshow that Jefferson City under total Republican leadership has become.”
Arthur told her supporters to "go home and get some rest because we need to show up again tomorrow" and work to elect Democrats throughout the state.
A Missouri Republican consultant, who asked for anonymity to speak candidly, said in a text message that "Every suburban Republican should be petrified tonight. This devastating loss signals they could lose this fall."
Voters at a pair of polling places in Kansas City pointed to a wide range of reasons for preferring Arthur over Corlew, including a desire to bring more political balance the legislature, frustration with Trump and the national Republican Party and personal admiration for Arthur who had aggressively campaigned in the district.
The national women's group Emily's List said Arthur's "hard-earned victory is further proof that the sea change is already starting at the state and local level."
Both candidates’ campaigns have spent thousands on television ads. Arthur’s campaign spent more than $120,000 on TV ads in the final week of the race alone, according to FCC records.
Corlew’s official campaign has lagged in TV spending, but the Missouri Senate Campaign Committee spent tens of thousands on ads attacking Arthur.
Robin Martinez, a 54-year-old attorney from the Village of Oaks, said that the attack ads against Arthur, including ones that linked illegal immigration to violence, turned him off Corlew's candidacy.
"It was unseemly and uncalled for," he said about radio ads and mailers attacking Arthur.
"I’m really proud of the people of the district," Arthur said Tuesday. "I think they looked into their better angels and they rejected the attacks, which I think were racist and misogynistic."
Both Corlew and Arthur have touted their education backgrounds as they’ve sought the seat. They’ve clashed on tax policy and abortion rights.
Arthur’s aunt, Barbara Nemechek, greeted voters outside of the Kansas City North Community Center Tuesday and urged them to vote for her niece.
“Even if she weren’t my niece, I’d still think she’s a better candidate,” said Nemechek, who works as a teacher on the other side of the state line in the Shawnee Mission School District.
Most of the voters exiting the community center agreed.
Suzanne Conaway, a 70-year-old retiree from Kansas City, said she met Arthur during her first run for the House and that when Arthur found out she was suffering from eye infection she offered to bring Conaway any items that she needed and to spend time with her, a gesture that has stuck with her in the following years.
“She is not only very bright and committed, but she’s very, very caring and compassionate. And these are things I look for,” she said.
Doug Scheffner, a 68-year-old retired police officer from Kansas City, cited his frustration with the Republican Party nationally as his reason for supporting Arthur.
“It’s not the Republican Party I once knew,” he said.