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Republicans In Tizzy Over Nieves Possibly Leaving State Senate

State Rep. Brian Nieves (R, Washington, Mo.)
Tim Bommel, Mo. House of Representatives
State Sen. Brian Nieves has filed for re-election, but some wonder if he is planning on changing his mind.

Until this week, most of the attention directed at state Sen. Brian Nieves, R-Washington, has focused on his outspoken conservatism and his efforts to block some federal gun laws.

But now the chief question is whether Nieves is preparing to quit the state Capitol.

Nieves said in two text messages this week, the latest on Friday, that he’s not yet ready to discuss the situation -- but many others are.

As expected, Nieves showed up Tuesday on the first day of candidate filing and filed for re-election this fall.  But shortly before 5 p.m., state Rep. Dave Schatz, R-Sullivan, filed to challenge Nieves in the August primary.

Schatz’ filing, in turn, may have opened the door to other top Republicans considering whether to jump in as well. They include former state Sen. Jane Cunningham, R-Chesterfield, and state House Speaker Tim Jones, R-Eureka.

Changing 26th District

The 26th District now represented by Nieves spans from Franklin County to west St. Louis County.  The district took in more close-in suburbs as a result of redistricting in 2011.

Almost half of the 26th District’s voters reside in St. Louis County, a far cry from the district’s more rural demographics when Nieves first was elected to the Senate in 2010 in what was arguably the most combative Republican primary in the region that year.

Still, with no prominent Democratic opponent looming, Nieves had been expected to coast to re-election this fall.

But other considerations may intervene. By several accounts, Nieves has been mulling over various business opportunities that would pay more than the roughly $35,000 he earns now in the state Senate. 

Even so, some close to Nieves say he was shocked by Schatz’ action – although Schatz said he had discussed the matter with Nieves before filing.

Schatz said he filed, in part, because he had few options. Because of redistricting, Schatz no longer resides in the 111th District House district, where he was originally elected in 2010.  That district was moved elsewhere, and he currently represents the 61st District. But he actually resides in the 119th District.  To file for re-election, he would have had to move into the 119th district by last year to meet the one-year residency requirement. He declined to do so.

To stay in the General Assembly, Schatz had two choices: to file against a fellow state representative – Dave Hinson – who represents the 119th House district where Schatz now resides, or file for the state Senate against Nieves.

Schatz noted that he and his family reside in the 26th Senate District. “I’m a Franklin County resident,’’ Schatz said, adding that played a role in his decision.

“This is not about Brian and Brian’s record at all,’’ Schatz said, emphasizing he would run “an honest campaign focusing on the issues,’’ including “legislative priorities, job creation” and similar matters.   

Schatz said he thought that voters, not political insiders, should decide who runs or holds public office.  

Cunningham, Jones in the wings

Meanwhile, Jones said he believes it is wrong for any Republican to file against Nieves.  “I have no intention of filing against the incumbent state senator, and it’s harmful for anyone in the party to do so,’’ he said.

Missouri state Sen. Jane Cunningham, R-Chesterfield.
Credit (via Missouri Senate Official Website)
Jane Cunningham would consider running in the 26th state Senate district -- but only if Nieves bowed out.

Cunningham agreed, affirming her earlier statements that she would be interested in the 26th District seat – but only if Nieves isn’t running for re-election.  

Cunningham currently sits on the board of the Monarch Fire Protection District, where she has been generating publicity over her fiscal conservatism and her frequent standoffs with the firefighters’ union.

She also is meeting Saturday with St. Louis County Republican party leaders who want her to consider running for county executive. So far, two lesser-known Republicans have filed for the post, now held by Democrat Charlie Dooley. In office for 10 years, Dooley is being challenged in the Democratic primary by County Councilman Steve Stenger of Affton.

The unrest in the 26th District could affect Cunningham's deliberations.

Cunningham noted that the 26th  Senate District takes in a lot of her old 7th District, which was moved across the state during redistricting. As a result, she didn’t run for re-election in 2012 because she would have had to move to the Kansas City area.

House Majority Floor Leader Tim Jones (R, Eureka).
Credit Marshall Griffin, St. Louis Public Radio
House Speaker Tim Jones, R-Eureka, will leave his House seat after this year because of term limits.

Jones said he believes that Cunningham was treated unfairly in the Senate redistricting process.

That said, Jones notes that his residence and his law office  are in the 26th Senate District. His father is a veterinarian who has practiced in Franklin County, also within the 26th District, for decades.

Jones will leave his House seat after this year because of term limits.  As a result, he acknowledged, “I would absolutely consider the opportunity’’ to seek the Senate seat, should Nieves opt against seek re-election this fall.

Jones would be a formidable contender, with a campaign bank account already closing in on $1 million. He had been expected to use it as seed money for a likely statewide bid in 2016.  If he would run for the Senate, Jones said he would avoid thinking about 2016 until after this fall’s election.

Meanwhile, Jones and Cunningham – who remain friends – emphasize that they wouldn’t run against the other in a 26th Senate District primary. Both see a primary contest as a waste of money that could be used against any potential Democratic challenger.

In any case, such talk is speculation until Nieves states publicly what he plans to do.  But Jones predicts that the discussion will continue, until Nieves' intentions are known.

Jones added, “I don’t think anyone saw this situation coming.”

Jo Mannies is a freelance journalist and former political reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.