Democratic Rep. Lauren Arthur’s 19-point victory in a special election for a previously GOP-held Missouri Senate seat provides lessons for both political parties ahead of November.
Republican Ryan Silvey had won the seat by more than 22 points only a year and half ago. The special election to replace him took place only four days after former Gov. Eric Greitens officially left office in the face of multiple scandals.
Arthur won 59.6 percent of the 24,637 total cast to defeat Rep. Kevin Corlew, R-Kansas City in the race with a turnout rate of 20.2 percent. She will be the first Democrat to represent Missouri's 17th District since 2005.
Arthur, 30, centered her campaign on labor rights, a message that resonated in the Northland district where many union members are upset about the state’s right-to-work law that was passed by the Republican-controlled legislature last year.
“They say, ‘Don’t poke a sleeping bear,’ and I think the Republican majorities have poked thousands of sleeping bears across Missouri and Clay County,” Arthur said Wednesday, noting that support from labor groups was key to her win.
U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., who faces a tough re-election fight in November, was quick to congratulate Arthur and say her victory shows “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.”
Republican consultants repeatedly pointed to Greitens’ impact when explaining the 41-point swing in the district, which covers parts of Kansas City and its northern suburbs.
“You were in the very height of the Greitens mess when that election occurred and probably at the zenith of Republican Party fracture,” said John Hancock, the former chair of the Missouri Republican Party.
Gregg Keller, a St. Louis-based GOP consultant and outspoken critic of Greitens, said that the allegations against Greitens would have been damaging to Republicans’ chances on their own, but that the former governor’s decision to drag out the drama for months particularly hurtful to Corlew.
“What really added gasoline to the fire, however, is the manner in which Greitens went down and the manner in which he went down was throwing everyone, including the Republican Party, under the bus in his attempt to keep power,” Keller said.
Corlew said in an email that the “political environment proved difficult with the uncertain nature of a special election, the political headwinds we were facing in the state and nationally, and Republican apathy. Together they created a perfect storm that was hard to navigate.”
One Republican consultant, who asked for anonymity to speak candidly, said in a text message Tuesday night that every “suburban Republican should be petrified” by the results of the race.
“This devastating loss signals they could lose this fall,” the consultant said.
Hancock and Keller both said that the party has time to recover before November.
“I think it would be a mistake to minimize the significance of it. But I also think it would be a mistake to go into full-on panic mode,” Hancock said.
“Democrats are going to have the most opportune cycle that they’ve had in a very long time and we just need to be prepared for that.”
Attorney General Josh Hawley’s campaign dismissed the significance of the race on his bid to oust McCaskill.
“Senator McCaskill is desperately clinging to any lifeline she can find for her campaign,” said Kelli Ford, Hawley’s spokeswoman in an email, citing polling data that shows low approval ratings for the Democratic incumbent.
Keller said that Republicans will have five months to attack McCaskill and mobilize the conservative base ahead of November’s Senate election, and that by point the Greitens-shaped cloud over the party will have dissipated.
Both Hancock and Keller said that Democrats had recruited a particularly adept candidate with Arthur, a former teacher and two-term state representative who will become the youngest member of the state Senate and the first Democrat to hold the Clay County seat since former Senate President Pro Tem Ed Quick.
In 2017, Arthur was one of Ink magazine's 30 Under 30 honorees, featuring visionary young professionals in Kansas City.
Arthur said the double-digit victory “indicates that our side is fired up and motivated” and that the “the reason that they’re so fired up is they see how the decisions in Jefferson City negatively impact their lives.”
She also said that she heard from voters who were turned off by racially charged Republican campaign ads attacking her on immigration.
“I think some of the ads crossed a line,” she said.
Stephen Webber, the chair of the Missouri Democratic Party, said that Arthur’s campaign provides a template for other candidates to follow as the party seeks to win back seats from the Republican supermajority.
“I think there’s absolutely an energy out there, but Lauren didn’t win this race by sitting back and letting it happen,” Webber said.
Webber acknowledged that it’s unlikely Democrats will capture control of the Missouri House this election when each seat goes up for re-election, but noted Democrats “had folks from all over the state drive to Clay County to knock doors and they’re all going to go home energized.”
Former Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander, who campaigned for Arthur, said in an email that the “blowout in a district that Trump won by five points should make Republicans in Missouri very nervous. Lauren's win also proves that there's a ton of energy in the Missouri Democratic Party right now, and that's why we're going to win up and down the ballot in November."
Trump won the district in 2016, but GOP officials repeatedly pointed to the fact that Kander, a Kansas City Democrat, won the district by 11 percentage points in his unsuccessful bid to unseat U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., that year.
"Kevin Corlew ran a hard-fought campaign in a tough district where Jason Kander previously won by 11 points, and his campaign staff and volunteers should be proud of all of their work,” said Chris Nuelle, a spokesman for the state Republican Party, in an email.
“Heading into the summer, the Missouri GOP remains focused on its goal to elect Republican candidates up and down the ballot, and we are continually building our grassroots network... to ensure that we protect and strengthen our majorities and fire Claire McCaskill in November,” Nuelle said.
Peverill Squire, a political scientist at the University of Missouri, said both races suggest that Democrats “who have been demoralized in Missouri over the last couple elections are starting to regroup and mobilize,” which is a good sign for McCaskill.
“I think certainly McCaskill will look on it with delight because it suggests support in the suburban areas of the urban centers is tilting in the Democrats’ direction,” Squire said.
“I think for Hawley it just reinforces the notion that this isn’t going to be an easy campaign, and he’ll have to figure out a way to make suburban independents and moderates comfortable with his candidacy.”