Government & Politics

Missouri Democrats hope Donald Trump helps them shrink Republican legislative majority

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump after speaking during a campaign rally in St. Louis.
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump after speaking during a campaign rally in St. Louis. The Associated Press

Republicans are in no danger of losing their massive majority in the Missouri General Assembly anytime soon.

Tuesday’s deadline for candidates to file to run for office in Missouri did nothing to change that.

Democrats aren’t running any candidates at all in 66 House districts, leaving the GOP just 16 seats shy of a majority before any votes are cast. In the Senate, Republicans hold 14 seats that aren’t up for re-election this year and are unopposed in three that are, meaning the GOP is already assured of control of at least half the 34-member chamber.

So for Democrats, the aspirations are much more modest: Chip away at the GOP’s vetoproof majorities, which now stand at 116-45 in the Missouri House and 24-8 in the Senate.

And a big part of their strategy relies on the presidential campaign of Donald Trump.

“I think Donald Trump will affect every race across the country, to the advantage of Democrats,” said House Minority Leader Jake Hummel, a St. Louis Democrat. “If Donald Trump is at the top of the ticket, there will be significant damage done to the Republican Party.”

Missouri Republican Party Chairman John Hancock acknowledges that his party’s presidential nominee will have a major impact on races up and down the ballot.

But he’s bullish that the GOP will not only maintain their historic supermajorities, but they might just build on them.

“Our supermajorities are probably safe,” Hancock said. “A lot is going to be determined by how the top of the ticket performs in Missouri. But at this point, I do feel good about where we stand.”

To be sure, Democrats start at a huge disadvantage, with or without Donald Trump.

Recruiting candidates isn’t easy when it comes with the promise of toiling in the legislative minority for years to come. Even in 2012, when Democrats won all but one statewide office on the ballot that year, Republicans expanded their legislative majorities.

Add to this the fact that Republicans have built an impressive fundraising operation, with legislative leaders and party committees amassing campaign war chests they can then shuffle around to competitive races in the hopes of staving off any potential Democratic gains.

“Being in the superminority certainly makes it harder to recruit candidates,” Hummel said. “It makes it harder to raise money.”

How legislative districts are drawn also factors into Republican dominance. Democrats typically choose to live in dense, urban areas with very high concentrations of other Democrats, packing themselves into fewer districts. That’s compounded by the fact that some districts split urban areas and combine them with swaths of rural countryside.

That’s part of the reason Democratic success statewide hasn’t translated into success in the legislature.

With that in mind, it’s little wonder Democrats failed to even field a candidate in 66 House races and three Senate districts. Even in those where they did, only a handful of districts are considered up for grabs this fall.

In 2012 Democrats failed to field a candidate in 52 House districts. In 2014, 56 districts.

And in 2012 and 2014, Democrats failed to field a candidate in four and nine Senate districts.

“The only thing that’s up in the air this year is whether Republicans lose seats and drop below the vetoproof majority,” said Terry Smith, a professor of political science at Columbia College. “They’re in no danger of losing their majority.”

Democrats know they won’t be wresting legislative control out of the Republicans’ hands this fall. Instead, Hummel said, they’ll focus on 12-15 House races and two or three Senate campaigns in the hopes of whittling away at the GOP supermajority.

“We’re not shy about the fact that we have a lot of work to do,” said Crystal Brinkley, executive director of the Missouri Democratic Party. “We’re not going to get back into the majority this year, but we’re positioning ourselves to chip away and be successful in 2016, 2018, 2020 and moving forward.”

Riding a wave

Which brings the conversation back to Donald Trump.

Brinkley said Democrats expect to benefit if Trump wins the GOP presidential nomination, riding a wave of discontent among Republicans that could sweep many vulnerable candidates out of office.

“We’re in a good position to have the wind at our back, especially if the potential nominee is the catastrophe that is Donald Trump,” Brinkley said. “We’re doing what we can to get candidates in these that can take advantage of any potential wave.”

Trump’s candidacy has created a fissure within the Republican Party that runs the risk of spilling over into the fall campaign if he wins his party’s nomination. Already many conservative leaders have vowed they’ll never support Trump if he’s the nominee, and they were recently joined in the opposition to Trump by Republican Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska.

Hancock said he’s seen polling that shows both Trump and his main rival for the nomination, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, would win Missouri in the fall. But, “polling this far out isn’t really worth much.”

“The top of the ticket is very important, because it impacts voter turnout,” he said. “If folks think their side doesn’t have a chance at the White House, base turnout is going to take a hit. And that can impact legislative races down the ballot.”

But Hancock says the party will benefit from its slate of candidates for statewide offices, noting that there is no incumbent running for governor, attorney general, secretary of state or treasurer.

“We’re going to have a strong top of the ticket,” he said.

Missouri shouldn’t be in play for presumed Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, said Columbia College’s Smith. The state has been trending toward Republicans at the presidential level for years.

So if Missouri is actually close this fall, and Clinton stands a chance to win in the Show-Me State, “that’s going to mean a very big night for Democrats everywhere.”

Labor-backed Republicans

Complicating things for Democrats in Missouri is the fact that one of its core constituencies — organized labor unions — has chosen to back Republicans in several key legislative races.

Those GOP lawmakers bucked their party and voted against a right-to-work bill, earning them the loyalty of organized labor.

Hummel not only serves as the Democratic leader in the House, but he’s also secretary-treasurer of the Missouri AFL-CIO. He admits that when labor supports Republican candidates, “it can be uncomfortable for me, because my loyalty is with the party and with the Democratic House caucus.”

When labor supports Republicans, it can make it difficult to recruit candidates in those races, Hummel said. But overall, “the working people of Missouri know they are better served when Democrats are in office.”

Many of those labor-backed Republicans may not even be in the race come November. Several, including Rep. Bill Kidd of Independence, Rep. Nick King of Liberty and Rep. Sheila Solon of Blue Springs, have a primary challenge they have to fend off first.

Republican megadonor and right-to-work advocate David Humphreys has poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into a campaign committee aimed at ousting pro-labor Republicans in the House.

Historic trends

The balance of power in the Missouri legislature hasn’t always been so lopsided.

Democrats held supermajorities in the late 1980s, at a time when Republicans held nearly every statewide office — a mirror image of Missouri politics today.

Republicans slowly but surely chipped away at the majority, eventually taking control of the Senate in 2001 and the House in 2002. Voter-imposed term limits helped the GOP’s efforts, as veteran conservative Democrats were forced out of office in many rural districts and replaced by Republicans.

By 2010, Republicans held an 88-75 advantage in the House and a 23-11 majority in the Senate.

But the tea-party-fueled Republican wave that swept Democrats out of power in Congress that fall also resulted in huge Republican majorities in the Missouri legislature. The GOP emerged with 106 House seats and 26 Senate seats.

Since then, Republicans have continued to expand their House majority, knocking off virtually every Democratic legislator outside of Kansas City, St. Louis and Columbia.

As a result, Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon has seen 82 of his vetoes overridden by the GOP-dominated General Assembly — 10 times more overrides than in the previous 150 years combined.

“Nearly every district that is remotely winnable for a Republican is held by a Republican,” Hancock said. “I thought we reached maximum capacity in the House at 106 seats. Then I thought there’s no way we could top 110. But now we’re at 116. Who knows how many seats we could win? I wouldn’t rule anything out.”

Hummel, however, believes the Democrats are going to stop the bleeding this year.

“We’ve hit rock bottom,” he said, “and it’s only up from here.”

Jason Hancock: 573-634-3565, @J_Hancock