After serving nearly a decade as Cass County prosecutor, Teresa Hensley might have figured she was a shoo-in for re-election.
She had secured 21 murder convictions, after all, and no prosecutor on the Missouri side of the Kansas City area had lost a re-election bid in 10 years.
But like other Democratic candidates on Tuesday, Hensley found herself on the wrong side of a political tidal wave that crashed over Washington and rippled through the Kansas City area.
In two counties — Clay and Cass — Republicans defeated nearly every Democratic incumbent or challenger.
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Hensley, who became prosecutor in 2005, was one of those officeholders. She fell to Ben Butler, 31, a criminal defense attorney who was seeking public office for the first time. Butler captured 53 percent of the votes to Hensley’s 47 percent.
“In Cass County, there pretty much is this view (now) that if you run as a Republican that you are going to win,” Hensley said Friday. “As a Democrat, I wasn’t taking anything for granted and I campaigned about as hard as anyone could campaign. It was a great disappointment to lose that which I enjoy doing so much.”
Since 2010, the political winds in the counties have shifted from Democratic to Republican. Some longtime Democrats even switched party affiliations.
In Clay County, Carol McCaslin, who had been elected county treasurer and later presiding commissioner as a Democrat, filed as a Republican and was elected county auditor Tuesday.
“It was a Republican wave that swept the country. Missouri got caught up in it like most states, and candidates like Teresa Hensley who otherwise would have been safe were on the wrong side of that wave,” said Richard Martin, a longtime Democratic consultant.
Butler said voters desired more conservative candidates.
“They were ready for a fresh face and someone who can work with law enforcement and bring about the positive change that office needs,” he said. “The community paid close attention to this race and knew the candidates well. They did their homework, and their voice was heard.”
Hensley said she campaigned aggressively, staffed phone banks, canvassed door to door, sent out mailers, secured the endorsements of past county prosecutors and raised three times as much money as her opponent. But those efforts fell short.
“Based on the 2010 election and the 2012 election, anybody who changed (political) parties in Cass County believed the only way they can win is if they are running as an R,” said Hensley, who was unsuccessful two years ago in a bid to unseat U.S. Rep. Vicky Hartzler.
Throughout her campaign to be re-elected prosecutor, Hensley cited her years of courtroom experience and numerous courtroom victories, including 10 manslaughter cases and numerous child sex abuse convictions and other convictions.
Early in her tenure, Hensley’s office secured convictions in the shooting death of David Zeller, a retired Harrisonville minister. In 2008, in a 12-year-old cold case, her staff got the conviction of a woman who had spiked her husband’s drinks with antifreeze.
“I will miss working with the staff, victims and the community,” she said.
Hensley created task forces that tackled drunk drivers, arson fires and children assault crimes. She developed safety training programs for women and various crime prevention programs. She worked statewide to help other county prosecutors.
“Teresa Hensley leads a team of prosecutors who are investigating and implementing best practices for DWI and traffic safety cases,” Boone County prosecutor Daniel K. Knight, president of the Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, said in an email. “We will miss Teresa’s outstanding leadership in that area even as we welcome Ben Butler to the prosecution community.”
In 2010, Hensley ran unopposed for re-election. It was the same year that Danielle Rogers, a fellow Democrat, was first elected Ray County prosecutor, defeating the incumbent.
Like Hensley, Rogers lost her re-election bid Tuesday, falling to Republican Camille Johnston.
“It’s always difficult to defeat an incumbent,” said Platte County prosecutor Eric Zahnd. “But there’s also an old saying that friends come and go and enemies accumulate. That’s doubly true for prosecutors, who naturally pick up foes by prosecuting members of their own community.”