By every major measure, Republican Gov. Mike Parson looks poised to sail back into office next November.
Early polls show the 64-year-old former sheriff from Bolivar, who took over for scandal-plagued Eric Greitens following his resignation last year, with a substantial lead over Missouri Auditor Nicole Galloway, 37, a CPA and the last Democrat left standing in statewide office.
Parson also enjoys a massive head start in campaign cash and is a stalwart supporter of President Donald Trump, who won Missouri by 19 points in 2016.
Yet in Kentucky — a deeply red state that Trump won by 30 points in 2016 and visited to rally supporters on Election Eve — a Democrat claimed victory over the incumbent GOP governor Tuesday night. And in Missouri, Democrats picked up a legislative seat Tuesday in a suburban St. Louis district that was for years a GOP stronghold.
More than a dozen Republican and Democratic activists and consultants, along with nonpartisan observers, said in recent interviews with The Star that while Galloway faces an uphill fight, the race for Missouri governor remains very fluid one year out.
These political insiders said any number of factors — from scandals to contentious ballot questions to a recession — could emerge to upend the race.
But two issues came up in nearly every interview as potential 2020 game changers: the impact of possible impeachment on President Trump’s quest for a second term and GOP-led efforts to end abortion in Missouri.
“It’s going to be largely dependent on where Trump is, and right now the trajectory isn’t great,” said a longtime Republican strategist close to the Parson campaign, who, like many other operatives, asked for anonymity to speak candidly.
“The governor is just not going to over perform the top of the ticket. Unless Democrats nominate Bernie or Warren, there is no way Parson should feel comfortable with his standing.”
Parson wants to spend 2020 “talking about jobs and infrastructure,” said another GOP strategist. “The last thing he wants is to spend a year answering questions about whether rape victims should be able to get abortions.”
President Trump cruised to victory in Missouri in 2016. Yet that only translated to a three-point win for Republican U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt and a six-point margin for former Republican Gov. Eric Greitens.
Since taking office the president’s net approval rating has dropped 14 percentage points in Missouri, according to tracking conducted by Morning Consult. A recent poll of Missouri voters, conducted in September by Remington Research Group for the political newsletter MoScout, put Trump’s approval rating at 53 percent.
David Robertson, professor of political science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, said the 2020 election will be “intensely nationalized.”
“A very strong Democratic wave next year could undercut Parson’s advantages,” Robertson said, adding that while Parson enjoys a decent approval rating, a recent poll found he is unknown by 27 percent of Missourians.
“That means that he still has to be defined,” Robertson said, “and he will be defined in the campaign.”
The fact that nearly half the country supports not just an impeachment inquiry but impeachment and removal suggests that “Trump will not be quite the tailwind for Missouri Republicans that he was when he carried the state by 19 points in 2016,” said Jeff Smith, a former Democratic state senator and political science professor from St. Louis who now leads a nonprofit advocating for expanded low-income housing.
Yet national trends that are favorable to Democrats “don’t always help Missouri Democrats, considering the national party’s more liberal brand isn’t in great shape in the Show Me State,” Smith said.
“Missouri voters tend to like moderates. Missouri Dems won’t be helped if the Democratic presidential nominee hails from the party’s left,” he said. “Ticket-splitting has declined precipitously over the last few decades, and so statewide Dems will probably lose if our presidential nominee loses in another landslide here.”
With the impeachment inquiry officially underway in Congress, Missouri Republicans have shown no signs of wavering in their support for the president. Parson recently released a video condemning the impeachment process and asking voters to “stand with our president.”
James Harris, a veteran Republican consultant who is working for a pro-Parson political action committee, said roughly 60 percent of the vote in Missouri comes from rural areas.
Polls show that Trump’s approval rating in rural Missouri is off the charts, in some areas reaching into the 80s.
“Missouri’s rural base helps Republicans, especially while Donald Trump – who is very popular throughout rural Missouri – is president,” Harris said.
Robynn Kuhlmann, professor of political science at the University of Central Missouri, said even if President Trump’s ratings fall in the state, “I don’t think that Gov. Parson’s approval will be significantly tied to him.”
“This is primarily because his governing style is incredibly different,” she said. “Also, partisanship is an incredible force on the American psyche. If Missourians go sour on President Trump, it won’t be the silver bullet for their partisan identity.”
Parson’s rhetorical focus since taking office last year has been on jobs and infrastructure. In many ways, that’s an extension of his 12 years as a state legislator, where he earned the reputation as a deal maker who was not an ideological bomb thrower.
But the issue likely to be front and center in the 2020 campaign for governor won’t be jobs or bridges, but abortion.
Parson signed legislation earlier this year outlawing all abortions before eight weeks of pregnancy – with no exception for victims of rape or incest. Additionally, his administration continues to be locked in a legal scrum over its decision to deny a license to the only clinic in Missouri that provides abortions.
Complicating things for Republicans is a vow by one of the party’s most prolific donors – Joplin businessman David Humphreys – to bankroll efforts to repeal the abortion law. Humphreys publicly called on Parson to veto the measure, saying the lack of protections for rape and incest victims inspired him to speak out.
He’s already put $1 million into a political action committee called Committee to Protect the Rights of Victims of Rape & Incest, which aims to put the issue on the 2020 ballot — a scenario that would keep the issue burning hot throughout the campaign.
In addition to the abortion ban, which has been challenged in court, a furor over patient privacy ignited last week during a hearing over hearing on the state’s decision to deny a license to the state’s lone abortion clinic.
Testimony revealed that the governor’s department of health maintained a spreadsheet tracking the menstrual periods of women who visited Planned Parenthood in St. Louis. And the investigator who inspected the Planned Parenthood clinic before the state denied it a license testified that he had never done that type of inspection before, and he had no medical training.
If the ongoing fight over abortion results in a spike in suburban Democratic turnout, that bolsters Galloway’s chances.
To have a real shot at winning, Galloway will have to “dominate in the suburbs and reduce the Republican advantage in rural Missouri,” said Peverill Squire, professor of political science at the University of Missouri-Columbia.
Jennifer Duffy, a senior editor for The Cook Political Report, where she is responsible for U.S. Senate and Governors races, said that while neither voters nor pundits are particularly focused on Missouri’s governor’s race yet, she currently lists it at “solid Republican.”
“As the race develops,” she said, “it may move a little bit. It’s going take a lot for Democrats to get this into tossup.”