2020 was a bloodbath for Missouri Democrats. Will 2022 be any better?

Democratic Party

(Missouri Independent) – There’s no point trying to spin it: While the 2020 election was a mixed verdict nationally, with Republicans gaining congressional seats and minimizing Senate losses even as Joe Biden defeated President Donald Trump, the Missouri verdict was unequivocal.

It started atop the ticket with Trump’s dominance. He and Gov. Mike Parson set the tone, winning by 16 percent in the two races polling suggested would be closer. Other statewide incumbents won by even more, and the advantage filtered down to legislative races.

Since 2000, the House Republican Campaign Committee (HRCC) has engineered a circle of strong fundraising attracting talented operatives, leading to large majorities and eventually supermajorities, which offer the type of agenda control that attracts still more money.

While the HRCC has repeatedly proven itself in swing seats, Democrats have struggled. This cycle, they gained just one seat, a 76-vote victory in a Springfield House district that has been trending left, against a Republican incumbent feckless enough to spend a fall weekend canvassing for a colleague 200 miles away.

Likewise, Senate Republicans ran effective campaigns that produced the kind of painful losses Democrats have experienced since 2001.

The first was in St. Louis, where – between her campaign and supportive independent expenditures – Deb Lavender spent $2.4 million and failed to topple incumbent Republican Sen. Andrew Koenig.

The second came in Columbia, where Sen. Caleb Rowden performed the political highwire act of leading a largely conservative Senate caucus as perhaps the chamber’s most moderate member while successfully branding himself as a non-ideological senator bringing home Mizzou’s bacon.

In a year when everything was about Trump, Rowden cruised in Cooper County while staying within 1 percentage point of Judy Baker in Boone County — even as Trump lost the county by 12 points. Few races in Missouri, let alone the nation, saw such frequent ticket-splitting.

Democrats’ sole swing-seat Senate win came in south St. Louis County, where Republican David Lenihan failed to pony up the cash he’d promised to spend against Rep. Doug Beck. Longtime pipefitter Beck fit the working-class district better than Lenihan, whose mailers boasted of his J.D. and Ph.D. from prestigious British universities, the sort of declaration that’ll get you cold-cocked at a South County biker bar.

In other words, Democrats’ two notable wins were aided by flawed Republican candidates.

The election’s biggest surprise – and its most consequential single outcome – was the passage of Amendment 3, a redistricting ballot measure likely to seal Democrats’ minority status in the Legislature for a decade.

Major Democratic funders were banking on new maps drawn to increase competitiveness through finger-like appendages reaching out to absorb conservative exurban voters into Democratic-leaning districts. But the dozens of 55 percent Democratic districts they envisioned will not materialize.

Instead, the new maps will likely resemble the old maps: Dozens of 65 to 85 percent districts in Kansas City, St. Louis City, and inner-ring suburbs, with the rest of the state dominated by 55-65 percent Republican districts.

Republican voters will continue to be more efficiently distributed than Democratic voters, a geopolitical coincidence with outsized implications for state government.

Looking forward

The 2022 marquee races will be those for Missouri Auditor and U.S. Senate.

Incumbent Democratic Auditor Nicole Galloway will face voters having just absorbed more incoming fire than any statewide candidate facing re-election in Missouri history – roughly $20 million in negative advertisements from her unsuccessful gubernatorial run.

That helps explain why so many Republicans are exploring Auditor bids.

The names mentioned most often for auditor are Treasurer Scott Fitzpatrick, state Sen. Bob Onder, House Speaker Elijah Haahr, state Reps. David Gregory and Mary Elizabeth Coleman, and losing 2018 candidate Saundra McDowell.

But Galloway can cite the example of Claire McCaskill coming back from a 2004 gubernatorial defeat as a model – and she will likely benefit from an expensive Republican primary that could leave the victor broke and bloodied.

Meanwhile, with the demise of split-ticket voting nationally, the 2022 Senate race does not look especially promising for Missouri Democrats.

A Jason Kander candidacy may be the only chance for the race to become a national target. But one might imagine that Kander takes a good look at the 2020 Missouri election results and posits that a political re-emergence would work best through a different door, perhaps through President-elect Biden’s Veterans Administration.

Kander’s long-time adviser told The Kansas City Star that he will not run for Senate in 2022.

Several other Democratic names have been floated for Senate, but the drop off from Kander in name identification and fundraising capacity is steep. There is probably only one other person who can put the seat in play for Democrats.

And that person would be former Gov. Eric Greitens.

In the Missouri of yesteryear, incumbent U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt would be a shoo-in. Like his predecessor Kit Bond, he’s brought home significant federal money, leveraging his leadership position to secure funding for scientific research, Federally Qualified Health Centers and New Markets Tax Credits for struggling communities, and the relocating National Geospatial Agency.

And yet, a recent private poll showed a tight Blunt-Greitens race in a hypothetical 2022 primary.

Blunt’s spokesperson confirmed to The Star that he is planning to run again in 2022.

As he gears up for a reelection bid, it’s clear there is space to his right, and as the state’s savviest pol, he surely understands this vulnerability better than anyone.

Would Greitens primary him? The 2017 Greitens, who sought coast-to-coast donor backing as he positioned himself for a future national candidacy, wouldn’t have done such a thing. The 2020 Greitens, surrounded by Trumpy rabble-rousers like Rudy Giuliani, just might.

If Greitens challenges Blunt, it would be a bloodbath. Given Greitens’ baggage, the only question would be who leaves more blood on the battlefield.

If Blunt changes his mind and decides to retire, Greitens seems likely to run. Fearing a scandal-scarred nominee emerging from a splintered primary, national Republicans would try to coalesce around a single candidate. Would they circle the wagons around Jay Ashcroft, whose father himself served in the Senate before becoming U.S. Attorney General; whose national name identification could provide an instant national donor base; and whose statewide name ID helped him lead the 2020 ticket in votes?

Or would the establishment embrace Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt, who after visiting Washington, D.C. in 2017 stepped aside for his predecessor Josh Hawley, perhaps earning points for being a good soldier? Has Schmitt, once seen as a relatively moderate state senator, mollified the base with a series of Made-For-Fox-News legal actions such as suing the Chinese Communist Party and drafting President Trump’s brief contesting the Pennsylvania result?

Only one thing is certain: Missouri Democrats would salivate at the prospect of Greitens leading the GOP ticket, the kind of bank shot that could conceivably put the state back in play. Perhaps, then, Democrats’ quickest plausible route back to statewide competitiveness isn’t a methodical effort to encourage metropolitan growth or embrace heterodox candidates outside the major metros, as I’ve previously hypothesized.

It could be a Republican civil war resembling the long-running Kansas Republican schism that gave one of America’s most Republican states a Democratic governor – with Eric Greitens reprising the role of Kris Kobach.

Jeff Smith


Jeff Smith is executive director of the Missouri Workforce Housing Association, which supports development of safe, affordable housing. Previously, he taught public policy at Dartmouth College and The New School, represented the city of St. Louis in the Senate, and wrote three books: Trading Places, on U.S. party alignment; Mr. Smith Goes to Prison, a memoir and argument for reform; and Ferguson in Black and White, an historical analysis of St. Louis inequality. He holds a Ph.D. in political science from Washington University.