Missouri Democrats’ presence in state politics has shriveled to its smallest in well over a decade as the once-purple state turns deeper crimson.
With Claire McCaskill’s defeat Tuesday night, the party loses its standard bearer and a seasoned campaigner who rose through the ranks of the party over her 36-year career in elected office.
“There will certainly be a leadership void in Claire’s absence,” said Roy Temple, a former executive director of the Missouri Democratic Party.
Of the six statewide elected positions, Democrats hold one. Republicans control both U.S. Senate seats and more than two-thirds of the seats in both the Missouri House and Senate. Of Missouri’s eight congressional districts, only two are held by Democrats: Emanuel Cleaver, the former Kansas City mayor, and Lacy Clay, who represents St. Louis.
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As the party attempts to claw its way back into political relevance, it must face the fact that two decades of GOP electoral success has left Democrats with a depleted bench. Whether the party can mount a resurgence in a state where Senator-elect Josh Hawley rode the Trump vote into office will depend on growing its next generation of leaders.
Rep. Peter Meredith, D-St. Louis, said the Missouri Democratic Party has long focused too heavily on the candidates at the top of the ticket.
It’s a familiar complaint, going back to critics of two-term Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon who argue he didn’t do nearly enough to help build the party while handily defeating his GOP opponents.
As proof, they point to the fact that Nixon had more than $400,000 left over in his campaign fund after the 2012 election. Those resources could have helped stave off Republicans’ gains that year in the Missouri House and Senate, some Democrats argued at the time.
Meredith said Democrats’ focus on the top of the ticket continues to this day.
“We have to start building from the bottom,” he said. “There’s been too much emphasis on trickle down politics, and it doesn’t work.”
Missouri Democrats have been waiting for “this great white knight to come and save the party,” said state Rep. DaRon McGee, D-Kansas City.
“Jay Nixon, Chris Koster, Claire McCaskill, they are gone,” he said. “There is no knight coming to save the party.”
The party must start paying more attention to candidates at the local level if it ever wants to be relevant in Missouri again, McGee said.
The party’s current chairman, Stephen Webber, worked hard to start rebuilding the party apparatus, recruiting candidates and ensuring Democrats were competing all across the state, said state Sen. Lauren Arthur, D-Kansas City.
“But we know it’s going to be a long road,” Arthur said.
Democrats have to start working immediately to recruit legislative candidates who know their districts and are willing to work hard and fight for the seats, she said.
“But there are good reasons to care about the top of the ticket, too,” Arthur said. “The top of the ticket is going to have an impact on local races. But we all have to be willing to take ownership of our little part of Missouri.”
Republican Roy Blunt, now Missouri’s senior U.S. senator, said he feels confident in what he sees as the GOP’s deep well of political talent across the state — from Lt. Gov. Mike Kehoe to Josh Hawley.
But he sounded a cautionary note for any Republicans who might be eager to pronounce the Democratic Party dead in Missouri.
“When I went to Jefferson City as secretary of state 30 years ago, Democrats held the legislature two to one, and nobody expected that to change. And it changed dramatically,” Blunt said. “So Republicans shouldn’t assume this will be easy in a state like ours. But I think Democrats have their work cut out for them.”
Auditor Nicole Galloway, the only Democrat in statewide office, said there are plenty of Democrats in Missouri serving in state government and local office — and others thinking of running for office.
“Just four years ago today I was the treasurer of Boone County,” Galloway said.
Former Rep. Chris Kelly, who is running for mayor in Columbia, pointed to the success this year of ballot initiatives on minimum wage, medical marijuana, ethics reform and redistricting, saying that Democrats must find a way to become identified with issues voters care about.
“They vote for liberal ideas as ballot measures but then vote for legislators who oppose those ideas,” Kelly said. “That’s a very interesting contradiction.”
Democratic strategist and former McCaskill staffer Jack Cardetti said this moment in Democratic politics reminds him of the aftermath of McCaskill’s 2004 gubernatorial loss to Republican Matt Blunt. That year, Republicans controlled both Senate seats, and Cardetti said Democrats were “written off for dead.”
But in 2006, McCaskill won her first term in the U.S. Senate and Democrats held onto the auditor position she left. After the 2008 election — the last time a Democrat came close to winning Missouri’s presidential vote — Democrtas held every statewide office except lieutenant governor.
“The political pendulum swings in Missouri, frankly, harder than in most states,” Cardetti said.
But even after Democrats lost ground in 2004, they still held three statewide positions.
Now they have Galloway, 36, who won her first full term Tuesday night after being appointed to the position in 2015. She’s the party’s fresh blood many see as capable of higher office.
While not exhaustive, here’s a list of other Democrats who could shape the future of the state party.
Arthur, a former teacher, flipped a Republican state Senate seat in the Northland this summer, a victory she attributed primarily to the labor union members who backed her campaign.
Jean Peters Baker
Baker joined the Jackson County prosecutor’s office as a young assistant prosecutor hired by McCaskill. She was appointed to lead the office in 2011 and won her first election in 2012. She took over the case against former Gov. Eric Greitens this summer. Baker decided not to charge him because she didn’t have enough evidence, though she said there was “probable cause” for sexual assault.
A former Ferguson city councilman, Bell was elected St. Louis County prosecutor this year after pulling off an upset over a 28-year-incumbent in the Democratic primary. Raised in North St. Louis County, Bell is the son of a police officer. His campaign focused on a call for criminal justice reform, emerging in part from the unrest following the shooting death of Michael Brown by a Ferguson police officer in August 2014.
A former Ferguson protester, Franks toppled a political dynasty to win his St. Louis-based seat in the Missouri House in 2016. He helped lead protests last year after a white St. Louis police officer was found not guilty in the shooting death of a black suspect, and during his short time in state government he’s earned a reputation as someone willing to work across the aisle. Franks is expected to have the inside track on one of St. Louis’ two seats in the Missouri Senate in 2020.
The Kansas City mayor grew up on the city’s east side, served as a military police officer in the Marines and worked as an attorney for years before winning his first mayoral election in 2011. He has championed downtown Kansas City’s redevelopment, an effort his predecessor Kay Barnes began in the mid 2000s.
Before she won her Kansas City Council seat, Justus was the first openly gay member of the Missouri Senate. She championed the Missouri Nondiscrimination Act, which would ban bias based on sexual orientation and gender in employment, housing and public accommodations. Justus jumped back into the Kansas City mayor’s race last month after Kander withdrew.
Kander, an Army intelligence veteran and former Missouri Secretary of State, gave Blunt a run for his money in 2016, even while Republicans swept other statewide seats and Trump carried the state by nearly 19 points. Kander, who went on to found Let America Vote, withdrew from the Kansas City mayor’s race because of post traumatic stress disorder, but he left the door open for future political office.
First elected to her Springfield-based House seat in 2016, Quade was chosen by her colleagues Thursday to serve as House minority leader during the upcoming legislative session. She has a degree in social work, and previously served as director of a nonprofit addressing health, hunger and hygiene needs of economic disadvantaged children in several school districts. She also worked as a legislative staff member for McCaskill.
An attorney, former Democratic state representative from Columbia and aide to McCaskill, Webber served two tours of duty in Iraq with the United States Marine Corps. In 2017, following an unsuccessful run for state Senate, Webber became chairman of the Missouri Democratic Party, where he won praise for his work crisscrossing the state recruiting legislative candidates and stumping for the party’s ticket.