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Commentary: Missouri primary may be first shot in a national skirmish

It was not as dramatic as Confederate forces firing on the Union troops at Fort Sumter in April 1861, but Missouri's passage of Proposition C is certainly a notable skirmish in the 2010 reappearance of the states' right struggle. Channeling their inner John Calhouns, State Sens. Jane Cunningham and Jim Lembke have emerged as the new preachers of the nullification doctrine.

The principle is straightforward albeit constitutionally suspect: If you do not like a national law, use the state's law-making process to nullify its application within that state's boundaries.

Proposition C's rejection of the 2014 insurance purchase mandate in the new health reform law passed easily, 71 percent to 29 percent. Its path was smoothed by three factors: a decided Republican tilt in the electorate, favorable ballot wording and the opportunity to express frustration without real consequences.

Using the U.S. Senate primary contest as the barometer, almost 65 percent of the Aug. 3 ballots were cast on the Republican side. In the 7th Congressional District's open seat primary to succeed Roy Blunt, now the GOP U.S. Senate nominee, the contrast was even starker: 88 percent of the ballots were Republican.

Proposition C's route to the August ballot was through the legislature's power to refer a measure directly to the electorate. That meant the proposal's sponsors had the power to draft the ballot language. They seized that opportunity to load the measure with don't-tread-on-us code words: "deny ... the government," "penalize citizens" and "infringe upon the right" are three examples. For those meeting Proposition C for the first time in the voting booth, the verbal signals all said "hell, yes."

Voting for Proposition C also causes no immediate harm and changes nothing substantive for the next three-plus years. The need for mandated insurance purchases so that the broader pool has both the healthy and the sick will not be triggered until 2014. Mad at Washington and want to shout out about it? Here's a chance to do just that.

Nonetheless, Proposition C's large approval margin is a victory for those who wish to cancel health-care reform before it is even close to being fully implemented. It is an early and positive step for an attempt to transform the November 2010 congressional elections into a national referendum on health-care policy's future direction.

To a large extent, it is a product of the House's passing health care reform in an extraordinarily partisan manner when no Republican voted "aye." Missouri's vote on Proposition C will encourage GOP candidates across the nation to make overthrowing health care reform a more prominent part of their electoral appeal.

John McCain's winning Missouri in 2008 tarnished the state's bellwether image, but it remains a guide stone for interpreting and anticipating national trends.

Aug. 3 was a mixed day for the Tea Party folks. On the minus side of the ledger, state Sen. Chuck Purgason's anti-Blunt campaign only attracted 13 percent of the Republican electorate, suggesting an inability by Tea Party activists to make a meaningful dent in a high-profile statewide campaign. On the plus side, Billy Long, the successful Republican nominee to succeed Roy Blunt in the U.S. House of Representatives, skillfully used the outsider label to defeat state Sens. Jack Goodman and Gary Nodler.

Within the St. Louis region, state Rep. Brian Nieves, a Tea Party stalwart, easily won the Republican nomination to take term-limited John Griesheimer's place in a Senate race that had two other competitive candidates, former state Rep. Jack Jackson and the mayor of Washington, Mo., Dick Stratman.

St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay had an excellent Tuesday at the polls, even though he was not on the ballot. In the 4th State Senate District formerly held by Jeff Smith, Joe Keaveny's tenure in that seat (won by committeeperson selection) ratified by the voters, defeated James Long, 57 percent to 43 percent. Having a dependable ally in the Missouri Senate is a major plus for any mayor, as Keaveny demonstrated by his work on issues like local control in the most recent legislative session. Now he will be there for at least four more years.

Mayor Slay also improved his relations with an important elected "county" office within the hybrid city of St. Louis government as Jane Schweitzer defeated incumbent circuit clerk, Mariano Favazza.

But Tuesday also brought a leaden cloud for city government with the announcement that the initiative that would require a 2011 vote to reauthorize the city's earnings tax qualified for the November 2010 ballot. If it passes in this year's general election, as is likely, it will set up a potential financial crisis should city voters reject the earnings tax at an April 2011 election.

Terry Jones is professor of political science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and author of "Fragmented by Design: Why St. Louis Has So Many Governments."

This article originally appeared in the St. Louis Beacon.

Terry Jones
Terry Jones is a polling expert and professor at the University of Missouri at St. Louis.