© 2023 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
On the Trail, an occasional column by St. Louis Public Radio political reporter Jason Rosenbaum, takes an analytical look at politics and policy across Missouri.

McKenna's Departure Leaves Nixon With Special Election Conundrum

Former Sen. Ryan McKenna, D-Jefferson County

It may take longer than expected to fill Ryan McKenna's void in the Missouri Senate.

When the Jefferson County Democrat resigned in December to become director of the state labor department, he left open the possibility that his Senate seat may remain vacant throughout 2014. If that occurs, the Missouri Senate would not be at full membership for an entire calendar year.

Gov. Jay Nixon will make the ultimate call. But his decision may have more to do with practicality than politics.

And it comes at a time when Republicans are less than thrilled about how quickly Nixon is calling special elections for vacant House seats. In fact, a lawsuit was filed last week seeking to force the governor's hand on the matter.

McKenna's 22nd District Senate seat – which takes in a big part of Jefferson County – is considered competitive territory. Even so, if a Democrat kept the seat, the Senate’s balance of power wouldn't change: Republicans would hold on to a supermajority. And Democrats could still filibuster bills effectively with nine members.

Thus, the conundrum of whether to call a special election.

The timing of McKenna’s resignation presents complications. The most likely option would be a special election in April to coincide with Jefferson County’s municipal elections. That would give the winner a few weeks to serve in the Senate before having to running for the seat again.

Missouri Senate
Sen. Paul LeVota, D-Independence

That scenario could produce a costly special special election for not a lot of permanence. And the governor, said state Sen. Paul LeVota, D-Independence, is “making sure that he is responsible in how much it costs for an election. He’s not just calling them willy-nilly.”  

On the other hand, keeping the seat vacant means that roughly 171,000 people in Jefferson County wouldn't have an elected representative in the Missouri Senate. Even if a senator serves for only a few weeks, that legislator will still likely vote on final passage of the state budget and most of the session’s major bills.

“They deserve a vote – constitutionally, one man one vote. They deserve to be heard and their vote counted in the legislature,” said Sen. Bob Dixon, R-Springfield.

Sen. Bob Dixon, R-Springfield
Sen. Bob Dixon, R-Springfield

While emphasizing that he does not know what Nixon may do, Dixon said that state statutes stipulate that Nixon should call special elections “without delay.”

“And so, my hope would be that he would comply with the spirit of the statute – if not the letter of the law,” he said.

For what it’s worth, Nixon has typically scheduled around three months between a state Senate resignation and a special election. When Democrat Jeff Smith resigned in August 2009, Nixon called a special election for November 2009. He also called for a February 2011 special election after Democrat Yvonne Wilson stepped down in December 2010.

But both of those situations were different from McKenna's. The special election for Smith’s old seat was the only St. Louis race on the ballot in 2009. It was timed so that his successor – state Sen. Joe Keaveny, D-St. Louis – could serve a full year in the Missouri Senate. The battle for Wilson’s seat came as Kansas City had municipal elections – and it was arranged so state Sen. Kiki Curls, D-Kansas City, could finish out nearly two years of Wilson’s term.

Nixon's spokesman Scott Holste said, “The circumstances in each instance are going to be different, and past situations won’t be indicative of when dates might be set for future special elections.

“If the governor were to call a special election before the general election in November, we would strive as much as possible to reduce the cost to taxpayers,” Holste said. “If possible, special elections are most commonly set for dates on which there are other races or issues on the ballot.”

Raring to go?

Even before McKenna resigned, two candidates – state Reps. Jeff Roorda, D-Barnhart, and Paul Wieland, R-Imperial – announced bids for his seat. 

Credit Mo. House Communications
Rep. Jeff Roorda, D-Barnhart

If there were a special election, party committees would pick the candidates. Both Roorda and Wieland said they’ve reached out to committee members if that scenario occurred.

But while the two candidates will likely have plenty to disagree about next year, neither was particularly enthused about the prospect of multiple elections next year.

"The voters when they adopted the constitution gave the governors latitude about whether it’s prudent or in the best interest of the public to call a special election," Roorda said. 

If there's an April election, Roorda said, "Whoever sits in the seat will only be there for four weeks.” That's a prospect, he said, that doesn't make "a ton of sense."

Wieland said that he didn’t believe “anybody would really look forward to running several elections in one year.” He also said that the winner of the special election likely wouldn’t have any advantages – or disadvantages – in the general election. 

Rep. Paul Wieland, R-Imperial
Rep. Paul Wieland, R-Imperial

“From a political standpoint, I guess you’d say I’m neutral," Wieland said. “From a fiscal standpoint if you’re a conservative, you’re like ‘well, should we waste the money to do that for somebody to go up and serve for a couple a weeks?’ And I don’t know.”

There are some political considerations though. If Wieland left his House seat, it would almost certainly ensure that Republicans wouldn’t have a veto-proof majority during the September veto session. And while Roorda possesses a decisive financial advantage over Wieland, he may have to deplete his cash on hand to run in the special election.

But LeVota – who is leading the effort for the Democrats to win back Senate seats – said he isn’t worried. Roorda is "such a strong candidate and such a hard worker and so in tune with that district" that he’d be able to win a special and regular election.

Forcing his hand?

McKenna’s departure comes when there are three vacancies in the Missouri House. Two seats were vacated by Republicans (Jason Smith and Dennis Fowler), while the other became vacant after Democrat Steve Webb resigned. 

Nixon still hasn't called a special election to fill a seat vacated by U.S. Rep. Jason Smith, R-Salem.
Credit House Communications
Nixon still hasn't called a special election to fill a seat vacated by U.S. Rep. Jason Smith, R-Salem.

Some Republicans want Nixon to call a special election to fill Smith’s seat, which has been vacant since June. And late last week, 10 Missourians filed a lawsuit that would force Nixon to call April special elections in the 22nd Senate District and three vacant House Districts.

(Holste said the governor's office had no comment on the lawsuit. Click here to read it.)

David Roland is handling the suit filed by the 10 residents who reside in the vacant districts. The Washington State-based attorney said the suit comes down to make sure the residents of the districts have representation.

"This is about one of the basic principles of American constitutional governments: people are supposed to have a voice in the legislature that's accountable to them," Roland said.

The House vacancies were one reason Dixon offered up legislation that includes a provision forcing a governor to call a legislative election within 30 days.

“The statute says that he shall call that without delay,” Dixon said. “So, I take that at face value to mean without delay. And you know the length of time that the citizens in former Rep. Smith’s district have gone without having representation … and not knowing when the election is going to be. So I just felt like we needed some sort of a maximum time that could pass before that election had to be call.” 

Unlike the decision over McKenna’s seat, filling the House seats will make a tangible difference. Fowler’s appointment to the Board of Probation and Parole means Republicans no longer have a veto-proof majority – which could complicate efforts to overrule gubernatorial vetoes.

LeVota though wasn't terribly enthused by Dixon's proposal.

“I do think it is important that you have an elected representative… as much as you can,” LeVota said. “With that said, the governor does have to balance out a state budget and make sure we’re doing things from a practical point of view. So I don’t know if forcing his hand is necessarily the right thing to do on that one.

“I’m perfectly fine with the legislature forcing his hand on other things,” he added. “This one, maybe not.”

On the Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads from the world of Missouri politics.

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