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Two St. Louis Republicans Battle To Lead Missouri Party

Ed Martin in 2010 at his election watch party when he ran unsuccessfully for Congress
File photo | Rachel Heidenry | St. Louis Beacon

(Updated 2 p.m. Friday, Jan. 9, 2015)

Despite all the gains that Missouri Republicans made in last fall’s balloting, the state party appears headed for a showdown shortly over who should be its leader heading into the crucial 2016 elections.

Two St. Louisans – incumbent state GOP chairman Ed Martin and former party executive director John Hancock – are competing in an election to determine who gets Martin's job.

The current GOP executive director, Matt Wills, confirmed Friday that their showdown is likely to  take place during the state GOP’s annual Lincoln Days gathering to be held in late February in Kansas City.

"Notice to the state committee will be sent out shortly," Wills said.

Such a contest could overshadow the event’s nationally known speakers, including 2012 presidential hopeful Rick Santorum and Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H.

This year's gathering -- the largest annual public event for Missouri Republicans -- has been renamed "Reagan-Lincoln Days'' to honor former President Ronald Reagan, a Republican icon.

Under the party’s bylaws, it’s up to Martin to schedule the election, which would involve the 68 committeemen and committeewomen from around the state. Since he postponed the usual vote in December or early January, some party activists have suspected that Martin might hold the event at Lincoln Days  to galvanize his backers.

The battle lines also highlight the state Republican Party’s ideological split. Martin, a lawyer and favorite of the tea-party wing, narrowly won the state post two years ago in a bitter contest in which he ousted incumbent David Cole. Hancock, a veteran political consultant, is believed to be backed by many of the party’s top donors and longtime activists, some of whom were never in Martin’s camp.

Hancock is declining to release a list of supporters. “I consider that divisive,’’ he said.

Battle largely over finances

Hancock is a longtime ally of U.S. Rep. Ann Wagner, R-Ballwin. But so far, she and the six other Republicans in Missouri’s congressional delegation have said little.

John Hancock
Credit Provided by Mr. Hancock
John Hancock

The key issue is the perception that the state party has suffered financial strain under Martin’s watch. “The party has gone from being one of the premier state parties in the country to one that’s broke,’’ said Hancock.

The last campaign finance report, filed in December, showed the state Republican Party with only $2,691 in the bank. The party reported spending $543,829 on candidates in 2014.

Another sore spot with some of Martin's critics is their contention that the state party did too little to help Rick Stream, the GOP nominee for St. Louis County executive who lost by fewer than 2,000 votes. The state GOP gave him $5,000 in direct donations, less than it gave some local candidates in St. Charles County.

Wills said Friday that the state GOP actually spent around $50,000 to help Stream, including the costs for special mailings, campaign literature and phone calls to get out the vote.

Martin, a lawyer, served a brief stint as chief of staff to Gov. Matt Blunt in 2006 and 2007. Martin left amid a controversy over whether he had ordered the destruction of office emails, in violation of state record-retention laws. Martin denied any wrongdoing.

He bounced back by narrowly losing a bid for Congress in 2010 against then-U.S. Rep. Russ Carnahan, D-St. Louis. Martin then ran in 2012 for attorney general but lost to incumbent Democrat Chris Koster.

Hancock, meanwhile, is a former state legislator. He lost two bids of his own for statewide office – in 1992 and 1996, when he ran for secretary of state.  He then spent 16 years as either the state party’s paid executive director (1997-2003) or as a fund-raising consultant (2004-2012).

Hancock founded a successful consulting business, which he folded when he accepted the job in charge of research for the nationally prominent Strategy Group Co., a political and business consulting firm in Columbus, Ohio. Hancock splits his time between Columbus and St. Louis, where he and his family still reside.

Do party leaders still matter?

Hancock has told committeepeople that he would focus on raising up to $3 million to assemble a strong get-out-the-vote operation for 2016.

Otherwise, he has warned that the state GOP could face a possible repeat of the last two presidential elections – in 2008 and 2012 – when most of the Republican statewide candidates lost.

But Martin points to the party’s strong success in the 2014 election, citing it as proof that his leadership has been a success. “After a disastrous 2012, we united the party, recruited candidates at every level and then won unprecedented victories in 2014 from county courthouses to the (state) House and Senate, and up to Congress.”

“Winning like we did in 2014 is what we need to do in 2016,’’ added Martin. His comments were made via text messages.

Hancock says the 2014 victories, like those in 2010, were largely due to the party’s strong House and Senate campaign committees, which run independently of the state party.

The state parties generally play a stronger role in presidential elections because that’s when most of Missouri’s statewide offices are also on the ballot. And statewide candidates often rely on state party operations to help with voter turnout.

State parties in Missouri have lost clout, however, with the elimination of campaign donation limits in 2008. Many donors who used to give money to the parties now give most of their contributions directly to favored candidates.

But George Connor, head of the political science department at Missouri State University, said that party chairmen still play a significant role.

"The party chairman is the public face of the party,'' Connor said. "There's still a message that Republicans want to get across and I think the chairman of the Democratic Party, of the Republican Party, still play an important role in getting that message out to the party faithful, the undecideds and to the general citizens of this state."

Democratic Party chairman may stay on

The Missouri Democratic Party didn’t fare well last fall, but party leaders don’t blame the party chairman, Roy Temple, a longtime activist and political consultant.

Temple says the party’s candidates were hurt by the national GOP wave last fall. “This was not a phenomenon unique to Missouri,’’ he said.

Temple also cites the state Republicans’ success in crafting a large number of GOP-leaning legislative districts during the 2011 redistricting after the 2010 census. As a result, Missouri Democrats have an institutional disadvantage when it comes to legislative races, he said.

In any case, Temple – chosen in 2013 -- said he’s willing to stay on as Democratic party chairman.  He is close to U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and state Attorney General Chris Koster; the two officials are the party’s biggest donors and have been heavily involved the party’s operations.

The Missouri Democratic Party’s 68 committeepeople are expected to vote in late February. So far, Temple has no prominent opposition.

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