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Trio Goes All Out To Capture St. Charles-Based State Senate Seat

Jason Rosenbaum, St. Louis Public Radio

Running for a seat in the Missouri Senate is tough. It takes months of door-to-door campaigning, an endless dash for cash, and a thick skin to win a competitive race. 

But Chuck Gatschenberger and Vicki Schneider may have a secret weapon: Both candidates in the race for the western St. Charles-based 2nd senatorial district had their campaign logos and faces imprinted on their trucks.

Schneider said she wrapped her truck because she “wanted people to know that they’re voting for someone that is just like them.”

Gatschenberger said it makes campaigning throughout the large and fast-growing district more fun.  "Sometimes the high-definition on those pictures is not a good thing,” he quipped.

Still, the Aug. 5 Republican primary to succeed former Sen. Scott Rupp, R-Wentzville, is serious business. Since no Democrat filed in the heavily Republican district, whoever wins the three-way race will be sworn in to the General Assembly’s upper chamber this fall. 

Credit Jason Rosenbaum, St. Louis Public Radio
Rep. Chuck Gatschenberger poses in front of his "Chuck Truck."

Gatschenberger, Schneider and former state Rep. Bob Onder have been crisscrossing the district for months. They’re seeking to appeal to a constituency that votes heavily Republicans but also includes many members of organized labor.

While the race won’t alter the composition of the Missouri Senate, that doesn’t mean the outcome won’t have an impact. After all, individual senators have great power to shape or kill legislation. That’s why political observers pay attention to who prevails in heavily Republican or Democratic Senate districts.

On the comeback trail

While Onder decided not to emblazon his face on his vehicle, that doesn’t mean he’s slacking off. Since he got into the race over a year ago, Onder said he’s knocked on 20,000 doors throughout the district. 

Credit Jason Rosenbaum, St. Louis Public Radio
Bob Onder served in the Missouri House for one term before leaving the legislature to run for Congress. He was, at the time, the only legislator with a medical and law degree. (Onder says he is not a practicing attorney.)

“It’s really been a lot of fun,” Onder said. “I’ve really enjoyed doing it. I’ve worn out a couple of pairs of shoes.”

The Lake Saint Louis resident served a term in the Missouri House in the mid-2000s. Some of his legislative colleagues were intrigued by the fact that Onder has both medical and law degrees.

Before he was elected to the legislature in 2006, Onder was active with groups that oppose abortion rights. He sponsored abortion restrictions in the legislature as well as a bill signed into law by then-Gov. Matt Blunt aimed at clamping down on illegal immigration.

Onder seemed to be on the rise in the Missouri House. But his time in the state legislature was cut short when he entered a GOP primary to replace U.S. Rep. Kenny Hulshof, a Columbia Republican who vacated his seat to run for governor. Onder lost to Blaine Luetkemeyer, who eventually won the seat in a competitive general election.

“The 9th Congressional District was a huge district,” Onder said. “A race that big requires a very, very strong ground game to really be effective and to move voters. I wasn’t able to do it in 2008. Blaine did it better. That’s why he beat me.”

Since then, Onder has built his medical practice and spent time with his family. But he felt the need to jump back in the fray when Rupp was preparing to leave the Missouri Senate due to term limits.

“Now more than ever in our state’s history, we need conservative leaders to lead the state forward,” Onder said. “Right now, we’re five years into an official economic recovery and we still have an unemployment rate of 7 percent. We’re 47 out of 50 states in economic growth. And I think I can do better.”

'I want to get stuff done'

Onder’s decision to run for Congress had a profound impact on Gatschenberger’s political career. 

Credit Tim Bommel, House Communications
Rep. Chuck Gatschenberger, R-Lake Saint Louis, talks with Rep. Jeanie Riddle, R-Mokane. Gatschenberger was elected to the Missouri House after Onder ran for Congress.

Before his election to the House, the Lake Saint Louis Republican was a financial planner and the head of academic advising at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. He unsuccessfully ran in 2006 for the state House seat that Onder eventually won.

Like Onder, Gatschenberger’s electoral defeat had an impact on his future campaigns. He said it made him work harder – which probably helped him win the seat in 2008.

“The thing that I do the best is work hard,” Gatschenberger said. “I know I’m not the sharpest tool in the shed. But I keep hitting it until I find out information. I keep hitting it until I get the answers. I keep hitting it until I figure out what’s going on. So if it taught me anything, it’s to work hard and don’t believe people around you."

Gatschenberger cited his experience as chairman of the House Local Government Committee as an asset. He noted that the committee often gets assigned well over 100 bills a year, which means he’s used to the nitty-gritty details of government.

Chuck Gatschenberger talks about his background and the campaign for the 2nd District seat.

If he’s elected, Gatschenberger said he would want to help support Republican Senate leaders like President Pro Tem Tom Dempsey, R-St. Charles, and Senate Majority Leader Ron Richard, R-Joplin, move the Republican agenda forward. He compared his potential role to being on the football field.

“I want to get stuff done,” Gatschenberger said. “I see my job as backing those two boys up to help them accomplish that. It’s kind of like playing football. Sometimes I’m going to carry the ball, most of the time I’m going to be blocking. I get that. The thing is though when we get down to the field and punch it into the end zone, we have made a touchdown. Not me.”

'People before politics'

Like the two other candidates in the race, Schneider is a former member of the Missouri House. But her path through the lower chamber was markedly different. 

Credit Courtesy of Vicki Schneider's Facebook page
Vicki Schneider served for four terms in the Missouri House. She runs a general contracting company based in O'Fallon.

Schneider has owned a construction company in O’Fallon for nearly four decades. She was always involved in philanthropic endeavors but decided to give politics a try in 2002 when she ran for the state House.

“I wasn’t real political. I just went up there because I wanted to make a difference in people’s lives,” Schneider said. “I thought ‘what would be a better way to help people on a broader scale?’ And that’s why I ran for state rep. So I didn’t have any idea what to expect when I got there.”

Schneider’s experience in the Missouri House was a bit different from the other two candidates in the race. For one thing, Schneider came into the legislature in 2002 – the year when Republicans took control of the Missouri House.

She sponsored a bill during her first year in office setting up a statewide Amber Alert system, an issue that was personal for her since she was abducted as a child. Like Gatschenberger, she was put in charge of the House Local Government Committee and emphasized that experience as an asset.

Vicki Schneider talks about her background and the campaign.

Unlike Onder or Gatschenberger, Schneider represented a legislative district that was evenly split between Republicans and Democrats. That competitiveness came to a head in 2008 when she narrowly lost re-election. She eventually won her seat back in 2010, allowing her to complete her fourth and final term that’s allowed under term limits.

If she’s elected, Schneider said she’d ascribe to the motto emblazoned on her truck: Putting “people before politics.”

“Another thing I always have said is I always want to help those who can’t help themselves. And usually those are children and seniors,” Schneider said.

An expensive campaign

One reason stands out to explain why the 2nd District contest has become the state’s most competitive state Senate primary. All three candidates have placed at least $200,000 of their own money into their campaigns. That level of self-funding is almost unheard of in a state Senate contest.

Otherwise, the candidates generally have similar philosophical views – especially on social issues. All three say they oppose abortion rights and same-sex marriage. (Onder, though, was the only candidate that received Missouri Right to Life’s endorsement.)

Onder gives his take on a litany of issues.

And they all say they support expanding gun rights. Schneider even has a photo on her wall with a deer that she harvested.

“I have my conceal and carry license,” Schneider said. “As you can see on my board, I hunt. I was raised with five brothers, but I’m the only hunter in the family. My other brothers don’t hunt.”

All three candidates expressed wariness about expanding Medicaid under the auspices of the Affordable Care Act. Both Onder and Gatschenberger said they would examine the idea of expansion if Medicaid was altered.

“In terms of the Barack Obama/Jay Nixon take the money and run expansion, I’m a solid vote against that,” Onder said. “But I’m open to some expansion at the same time we get reforms. But, again of course, the devil’s in the details.”

There are some differences, though. Schneider and Onder have been critical of a 0.75 percent sales tax for transportation projects. Gatschenberger voted in the House to put in on the ballot for voter consideration.

Another issue that splits the candidates is “right to work,” which would bar unions and employers from requiring workers to pay union dues if a majority vote to organize. Gatschenberger and Schneider are opposed while Onder is for it.

“I’m just trying to figure out why the legislators wanted to get right to work in the state of Missouri. Because it doesn’t create jobs,” said Schneider, whose company has used union labor on projects. “It doesn’t get rid of jobs. I’m just not sure what their purpose is for that.”

Schneider gives her take on the issues.

The pair’s opposition may signal organized labor’s increasing clout in St. Charles County. Many of the county’s state representatives voted against a “right to work” bill during last year’s session, perhaps because many union members have moved to St. Charles in the past couple of decades.

“I don’t love unions. I don’t hate unions. I work with unions. I mean, if it’s good for everybody, it’s good for everybody,” Gatschenberger said. “I’m not going to pigeonhole anybody and pick losers and pick winners. Let’s not keep peeing on everybody’s foot. I mean, let’s just do the job.”

Gatschenberger gives his views on a variety of issues.

For his part, Onder said unions have “helped to expand the middle class in this country.” But he went onto say that he believes “that worker freedom resides in the worker, not in the union.”

“I don’t believe that anyone should be forced as a condition of employment to join or a support a union,” he said, adding it was unlikely that issue would gain any traction until there’s a Republican governor. “So I do believe that right to work is a needed reform.”

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