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Jefferson County Becomes New Battleground For Missouri House Contests

Missouri House Chamber
File photo | Bill Greenblatt | UPI
The chambers of the Missouri House of Representatives at the Missouri Capitol in Jefferson City.

When it comes to the Missouri House and next Tuesday’s election, leaders in both major parties agree that the stakes are low.

There’s little doubt that Republicans will maintain historically huge majorities in the General Assembly’s lower chamber. They may even pick up another seat or two. Democrats, meanwhile, see their best hope in making a few gains of their own.

Still, House Republican Campaign Committee executive director Scott Dieckhaus admits a bit of uncertainty.

“There are actually more races that I would put in the toss-up category than I’ve ever looked at before. And it’s kind of nerve-wracking,” Dieckhaus said. "I think we’ll have a good night. I think that the likelihood of coming back at that super-majority is probably pretty high. The possibility exists to pick up some seats, too.”

“We’re just kind of wondering how many at this point,” he added.

Credit Provided
Jake Hummel

House Minority Leader Jake Hummel, D-St. Louis, is also realistic about the party’s chances – especially since voter turnout could be low due to the lack of a competitive statewide race.

“Everybody realizes it’s kind of a tough year,” Hummel said. “It’s a low-turnout election, so everyone really – I think you’d find this on both sides of the aisle –is up in the air as to anybody knowing what turnout’s going to look like.”

As has been the case for years, Republicans have generously spent money to aid potentially vulnerable incumbents and attack vulnerable Democrats.  The money often is used to flood the airwaves with television and radio ads or to stuff mailboxes with disparaging mailers.

But this year, Democrats are a bit more flush. Some Democratic leaders – notably U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and Attorney General Chris Koster – have provided legislative candidates with thousands of dollars to spend. Hummel said their help is making a difference.

“Think of it this way: I don’t think (Republicans) are used to having to run races where we have the money to put into these races,” Hummel said. “Obviously, they have more money. Right? They’re going to get more money from [Rex Sinquefield]. They’re going to get more money from big donors. And we know that. However, for the first time we actually have the money to run real races to expand our playing field. And if I were them, I’d be a little nervous about that.”

Dieckhaus, though, said that most of McCaskill and Koster’s money is going to competitive state Senate races – such as ones in Jefferson County and central St. Louis County. He’s not sure the influx of cash is going to make much of difference in House contests.

Battleground: Jefferson County

Arguably the most competitive legislative arena is in Jefferson County, for years a Democratic stronghold.

Republicans are trying to knock off three Democratic incumbents – state Reps. Michael Frame, T.J. McKenna and Ben Harris. They’re also trying to win the open House seat that state Rep. Jeff Roorda is vacating to run for the state Senate.

At the same time, Democrats are trying to capture the House seat held by his GOP rival for that Senate seat, state Rep. Paul Wieland. They’re also trying to defeat two Republican incumbents -- state Rep. Elaine Gannon and John McCaherty.

Credit Missouri House of Representatives
Scott Dieckhaus

Dieckhaus joked that Jefferson County’s become so competitive during election years that he’s considering buying a vacation home there.

“We realized this is much more fertile ground than we thought it was. And a lot of it had to do with the Chrysler plant closing and a lot of former UAW guys being pissed off at Democrats,” Dieckhaus said. “JeffCo’s fertile now, north to south, east to west. It’s competitive ground at the very least for Republicans. And some districts are Republican districts already.”

While acknowledging that Jefferson County is more competitive, Hummel said Republicans may have another motive for pouring a lot of money into races there. He said that St. Charles County – long a GOP stronghold -- is becoming more Democratic.  That means Republicans may have to expand their map to cut down on future loses.

“What the Republicans need to do is take Jefferson County and make that their next solid lock,” Hummel said. “And I think that’s what they’re trying to do. If we can hold them this year, that 2016 is going to be a great year for Democrats in the House.”

Other Republican targets include:

  • A Lincoln County-based seat that’s being vacated by Rep. Ed Schieffer, D-Troy. Republican Randy Pietzman is running against Democrat Dan Dildine, a former Democratic judge.
  • Rep. John Wright, a Rocheport Democrat who’s spent hundreds of thousands of dollars of his own money to keep a central Missouri-based House seat. Republicans are bullish on former air traffic controller Chuck Bayse's chance to win, which could short-circuit Wright’s statewide opportunities in 2016.
  • A southeast Missouri-based seat being vacated by Rep. Steve Hodges, R-East Prairie. Republican Don Rone is running against former U.S. Rep. Bill Burlison. If 83-year-old Burlison is elected in the Democratic-leaning district, he would be the oldest member of the Missouri House.

Meanwhile, Hummel said Democrats are seeking to pick up several Republican-held seats in the Kansas City area and another one in the Bootheel. 
Fertile ground in St. Louis County?

While most of St. Louis County’s House seats were decided in the primary, Tuesday's ballot has several hotly contested races.

Credit Missouri House of Representatives
Vicki Englund

Among them is south St. Louis County’s 94th District, where Rep. Vicki Englund, D-St. Louis County, is once again running against former Rep. Cloria Brown, R-St. Louis County. This is the fourth straight time the two have run against each other for the Missouri House. Englund won in 2008 and 2012, while Brown prevailed in 2010.

Englund – who is also a member of the Lindbergh School Board – is touting her work on a school transfer bill that passed the legislature but was vetoed by Gov. Jay Nixon. Englund said it showcases her commitment to finding solutions to vexing education problems and her willingness to break away from her party on an important issue.

“The voters in the district realized that I have that experience and that knowledge to come to terms to how we handle the situation,” Englund said. “I think they’ve told me because I have that dual role, they realize that this is the strength that I have that the district needs at this time.”

Englund also promised to vote against bills that are hostile to labor unions – especially since the district is home to many retired members of organized labor. More globally, she said, Koster and McCaskill’s assistance has been invaluable – and not just for monetary reasons.

“They’re not just giving money. They’re not just putting their money where their mouth is. They are coming to events. They are working directly with candidates,” Englund said.

Credit Missouri House of Representatives
Cloria Brown

For her part, Brown said she’s getting a sense that 2014 will be more favorable to Republicans than the two elections in which Englund defeated her.

“In 2008 when I ran, Republicans were embarrassed to be Republicans,” Brown said. “Well, this year, Democrats appear to be embarrassed to be Democrats.”

She said people in the district have a feeling of “discontent.” Her potential constituents are “worried about the uncertainty.”

“The seniors are worried about…how things are going to be for their children and their grandchildren,” Brown said. “The parents are worried about whether they’re going to have money for college for their kids. And then of course, some people don’t have jobs. And those people are worried about jobs.”

“So if I had to say one thing, it’s the general uncertainty of the times,” she added.

Brown said on Thursday that Englund is outspending her. Brown estimated she had less than $300 in the bank.  “I have spent everything I have,” Brown said with a laugh, adding that she has over 700 signs out in the district. “We want to win.”

Also up for grabs is the county's open 90th District seat, which had been held by Republican Rick Stream, who’s now running for St. Louis County executive.

The district includes Kirkwood,  home of the two major candidates: Democrat Deb Lavender and Republican Gina Jaksetic.

This is Lavender’s fourth bid for the seat, and she’s particularly confident. One reason may be money: Lavender has raised almost four times as much as Jaksetic, and was heading into the final stretch with almost four times as much in the bank.

The two are highlighting the same issues – jobs, education and health care – but hold starkly different views.

Lavender, a physical therapist, is promoting her support for Medicaid expansion, which she notes would create more than 20,000 new health-care jobs in the state and add more than 200,000 to the rolls. She also points to the $1.6 billion a year in federal money that the state would receive to help pay for the expansion, and which the state gave up in 2014.

“Our district is ready for expansion,” Lavender said.

Jaksetic opposes the expansion, saying Medicaid should be targeted for low-income children, the disabled and the elderly. She says the best way to improve access to health care is to create more jobs that offer health insurance. Jaksetic also says people without health insurance can purchase it through the exchanges created by the federal Affordable Care Act.

Jaksetic said her key issue is “growing the economy and the job situation, to do everything we can to grow jobs.” She emphasizes her tenure on the Kirkwood City Council, where Jaksetic is in her second term.

Both say they support public education, with Lavender emphasizing her opposition to Amendment 3, the proposed constitutional amendment that among other things would do away with teacher tenure.

Their battle includes TV ads, with Lavender decrying the attack ads that Republicans are airing against her. Jaksetic says she knows nothing about such ads. Lavender also has been the target of a GOP robocall campaign, in which she’s blasted as a liberal.

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.
Jo Mannies is a freelance journalist and former political reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.