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Reps try to block Dems from Missouri House comebacks

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 24, 2012 - For state Rep. Scott Dieckhaus, the biggest threat to the record-breaking Republican majority in the Missouri House is a bunch of “zombies.”

No, the outgoing Washington Republican lawmaker isn’t afraid of an undead apocalypse. Rather Dieckhaus is referring to former Democratic legislators who decided to return to an electoral battlefield radically reshaped by redistricting.

From south St. Louis County to Jefferson County to the Bootheel, some of Missouri’s most competitive state House contests are rematches from 2010. That’s the year that Republicans won a staggering 17 seats in the House, bringing the party within three votes of the 109 needed to override a gubernatorial veto.

While Republicans may not be able to top that performance, Dieckhaus – the chairman of the House Republican Campaign Committee – said the goal this time around is to keep Democratic gains in check.

“With the map overall, Republicans and Democrats are disappointed, which tells me it’s close to a 'zero sum' game,” said Dieckhaus, who is not running for re-election. “The way I look at it, we probably overperformed two years ago and probably got a couple of seats that in most election cycles we wouldn’t get. My gut tells me we’re probably going to lose a couple of seats. If we come back 100-plus or 102 or 104, I think we’re pretty happy.”

One challenge for both parties is that the power of incumbency isn’t necessarily in play. Because of redistricting, some sitting legislators are running in districts where they don't reside.

“This year in Missouri and across the country, it’s going to get back to normal,” said state Rep. John Rizzo, a Kansas City Democrat who co-chairs the House Democratic Campaign Committee. “You’re not going to see these huge, prevailing sweeps like we’ve seen in the past six or eight years. I think this is going to be the first year where it kind of sweeps back to the middle.”

But Democratic expectations are tempered for a couple of reasons: The first is that Republicans have more money, which helps fund direct mail, television commercials and radio spots. And Democratic incumbents running in rural areas are facing stiff challenges for re-election.

Familiar names hope for comeback

Perhaps there’s no better example of Dieckhaus’ “zombie” analogy than south St. Louis County's 94th District. That’s where state Rep. Cloria Brown, R-St. Louis County, is squaring off once again with Democrat Vicki Lorenz Englund.

Englund defeated Brown in 2008 but lost in a 2010 re-match. This contest is the very definition of a “rubber match,” a term to describe the decisive game in a three-game series.

“There are very few surprises in terms of what each of us is capable of as far as fundraising goes – and we’re pretty known quantities in what our name recognition and ID is,” Englund said.  

While the candidates are the same, Englund says, the district has changed. It  became more Democratic after redistricting but also includes unfamiliar territory for both candidates. Englund also was elected to a seat on the Lindbergh School Board, which she says “kept her name out” in the community.

For her part, Brown said residents are getting the rare chance to choose between candidates with distinct voting records.

“The first one, they didn’t have an idea about either one except what we said when we filled out surveys,” Brown said. “And with the second one, they had her voting record and my survey-type of information. But by this time, if they choose to look at it, they have a real understanding as to the difference between the two of us.”

While Englund says that she hears often about education funding from voters, Brown said constituents tend to be more aware of national issues than what’s transpiring on a state level.

“They think more about Washington, D.C., than about Jefferson City,” Brown said. “Because they see the problems as I see it: The problems really is the uncertainty at a national level. And once that uncertainty is not so uncertain, maybe things will happen differently in our area. But that’s what I’m hearing from the businesspeople: They really are ready to hire people. They have the work. But they reluctant to do it because they don’t know what the Affordable Care Act is going to do. And they don’t want to hire someone that they’ll have to turn around and fire.”

Englund isn't the only former Democratic legislator trying for a comeback.

  • Former state Rep. Rebecca McClanahan, D-Kirksville, is running against Republican Nate Walker. Walker, who also served in the Missouri House, stepped back into the political fold after Rep. Zach Wyatt, R-Kirksville, announced he wouldn’t run for a second term.
  • Former state Sen. Ken Jacob, D-Columbia, is locked in a competitive state House contest for a mid-Missouri House seat with Republican Caleb Rowden. Jacob's political career seemed over after he lost bids for lieutenant governor in 2004 and U.S. Congress in 2008, but he's raised more money than Rowden in a district that both Dieckhaus and Rizzo say is competitive. 
  • Former state Rep. Wayne Henke, D-Troy, is facing Republican nominee Robert Cornejo in a district that includes Lincoln and St. Charles counties. Henke lost a state Senate bid in 2006 to Sen. Scott Rupp, R-St. Charles.
  • Former state Rep. Charlie Norr, D-Springfield, is once again taking on state Rep. Melissa Leach, R-Springfield. Both parties see Springfield as competitive territory, especially after redistricting.
  • Former state Rep. Tom Todd, D-Campbell, is running again against Rep. Kent Hampton, R-Malden. The Bootheel-based district is traditionally Democratic and could be competitive this year.

"What you're going to see is a quality versus quantity proposition," Englund said. "As the minority party and as the party that has a third of the House for example, we clearly need our quantity up. And we're working very hard to do that. However, what we're lacking in quantity, we will make up in quality."
Englund said redistricting helped some to decide to "put their hat back in the ring." She added, "It wasn't a great process overall, but in some particular cases that's why some of us decided to run again."

Brown said she is banking on connecting with south St. Louis County's conservative voters. "The people in south county are conservative -- and I'm conservative," said Brown, adding that voters may also be attracted to her accessibility as a legislator.

Unsettled terrain

Many House seats in St. Louis and parts of St. Louis County were effectively decided in the August primary.

Most candidates who won Democratic primaries in districts in the city and northern and eastern St. Louis County are running unopposed. Many Republicans running in the western part of St. Louis County or in St. Charles County are heavily favored to win re-election.

The main exception is the 90th District contest between state Rep. Rick Stream, R-Kirkwood, and Democrat Deb Lavender. While the district is fairly evenly split between the two parties, Stream may be helped by being designated as the next chairman of the House Budget Committee.

Lavender, a physical therapist who ran against Stream in 2008 and 2010, has made improving women’s health care a cornerstone of her campaign.Stream, a former member of the Kirkwood School Board, is touting endorsements from education groups such as the Missouri National Education Association and the Missouri State Teachers Association.

In the south St. Louis County's 92nd District, Democrat Genise Montecillo and Republican Al Faulstich are running on terrain that's become a bit more Republican after redistricting.

In the 70th District, Republican Eugene Dokes is running against Democrat Bill Otto. Because the district includes both GOP-leaning St. Charles County and Democratic municipalities such as Hazelwood, Bridgeton and Maryland Heights, it could be competitive for the foreseeable future.

Dokes, a real estate broker who recently served as chairman of the St. Charles Republican Central Committee, said he's trying to emphasize his business experience to appeal to voters.

“I just let them know first of all that this will be my first time holding office; I am not a career politician,” Dokes said. “My full background is in job creation. I’m a business owner. I have three degrees in business – my undergrad, my master's and most recently my doctorate. While earning my doctorate for the last two years, I actually researched how we can create jobs in this area. So I know what it takes to get jobs into this area.”

Otto, a former air traffic control operator who served as a city councilman in Bridgeton and on boards in St. Charles, said fostering economic growth is “like the mainstay for anybody.” But like Englund, Otto said people are concerned about education.

“Yesterday, I had a gentleman ask me about what I was going to do when I was at a door in Chesterfield,” Otto said. “And I said ‘jobs’ and started that. And then I said ‘education’ – and he took over. He was so engaged about education. He had ideas. He had proposals.”

“It seems to go to education,” he added. “I can either lead it, or I let them talk. And a lot of times it goes back to education.”

Optimism in Jefferson County

If Democrats are to gain any significant ground, they'll have to prevail in Jefferson County. 

The traditionally Democratic county went in a decidedly Republican direction two years ago when it elected a GOP county executive and Democrats lost some state House seats.

Now, three of the defeated Democrats -- Jeff Roorda, Michael Frame and Sam Komo -- are running again. Rizzo, who called the area “extremely important,” said Democratic candidates could benefit from Gov. Jay Nixon’s presence on the ticket. Nixon hails from De Soto in Jefferson County.

“Jeff County goes as Nixon goes,” Rizzo said. “When Jay runs at the top of the ticket well, Jeff County does well for us. Obviously, when Jay wasn’t on the ticket two years ago, we did very poorly in Jeff County. When you’re talking about the majority of the seats that we lost in '10, a lot of them came from Jeff County in that sweep of Republicans.”

Komo is locked in a re-match with state Rep. John McCaherty, R-High Ridge. And Roorda and Frame are in an unusual position compared to other former Democratic lawmakers. The Republicans who beat them in 2010 – state Reps. Paul Curtman, R-Pacific, and Paul Wieland, R-Imperial – are seeking re-election in different districts. 

Frame, who is running against Republican Derrick Good, said the electoral mood is much different from 2010. There could be an interesting dynamic at play, he said, if voters cast a ballot for GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney and Democratic statewide candidates like Nixon.

“My hope is that they’ll look at every individual race on its merits,” he said. “I feel completely confident that we’ll be celebrating victory on Election Day.”

Komo added that he, too, senses a different attitude from voters.

“I think in 2010, people were angry about what was going on federally," Komo said. "When you tried talking to people at the doors, they really didn’t want to engage. They didn’t really want to talk. They’d take your information. This election cycle, they seem more engaged with what’s going on.”

Both McCaherty and Good say Jefferson County's days as a Democratic stronghold are over. 

"Some of what you saw in '10 was a natural progression," said Good, an attorney. "Was the breadth of what happened in '10 surprising to everybody? Yeah, it was. But some of what happened in '10, some of us expected it because of the trends we have seen over the last 10 or 12 years.

"I don't think Jefferson County is ever going to return to the place of 'I'm a Democrat, therefore I win,'" he added.

While McCaherty said there’s “obviously a huge push by the Democratic Party” to gain back ground in Jefferson County, he added that Republicans are gaining favor in a county that he says supports socially conservative candidates opposed to abortion.

“We’re focused on just working hard, knocking doors, making the phone calls and meeting people,” McCaherty said. “I think we’re going to be fine. I don’t think we’re going to see a huge turnover as far as the rep seats or anything else that was won in 2010. I think the area is growing more and more Republican, and as time goes on we’ll see that."

Playing defense

One major obstacle to Democratic gains in the House are the stiff challenges the party’s incumbents face in rural areas.

In northeast Missouri, for instance, state Reps. Paul Quinn, D-Monroe City, and Tom Shively, D-Shelbyville, are locked in tight races. Quinn is facing off against Frankford Republican Jim Hansen, while Shively was drawn into the same district as fellow state Rep. Lindell Shumake, R-Hannibal.

While northeast Missouri has been traditionally Democratic, it is trending more Republican in both national and state legislative races. An example: Republican Brian Munzlinger denied state Sen. Wes Shoemyer, D-Clarence, re-election two years ago.

In southeast Missouri, state Rep. Steve Hodges, D-East Prairie, is up against Republican nominee Neal Boyd who may have some name recognition from his first place finish on "America’s Got Talent."

Hodges may be a particular target after he voted against overriding a bill during veto session allowing companies to exclude abortion, contraception or sterilization from insurance coverage. The three-term lawmaker ultimately lost his endorsement from Missouri Right to Life.

Hodges, who initially voted for the bill in regular session, said his district’s troubling teen pregnancy rate convinced him to change course.

One major problem for Democrats is their substantial financial disadvantage. The House Republican Campaign Committee has close to $1.4 million while the House Democratic Campaign Committee has only $146,728.56.

Democratic efforts may also be hurt by the fact that Missouri Club for Growth – a group funded almost exclusively by retired financer Rex Sinquefield – is likely to contribute heavily to Republican candidates.

“Our fundraising capabilities will determine how many seats we can actively participate in,” Rizzo said. “If we are able to raise some money, I am hoping we are able to pick up five to seven seats. If we are pinching pennies, I’m hoping that we can pick up three or four.”

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.

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