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We will broadcast special coverage of both the Republican and Democratic National Conventions, starting with the RNC tonight at 8.

Missouri's position — and importance — in 2016 presidential contest up in the air

Clockwise from upper left, Jeb Bush, Hillary Clinton, Ted Cruz and Scott Walker

First, one thing needs to be made clear: Missouri is no longer a presidential bellwether state. The state’s voters haven’t sided with the national victor since 2004.

As a result, as more candidates announce their 2016 presidential bids, many activists in both major parties predict Missouri won’t be a battleground state this time, either.

This means, as in 2012, Missouri voters won’t see many presidential TV ads and likely won’t see much of the candidates.

Under that scenario, Democrats believe it will be too costly, too risky and unnecessary to try to carry the state. And Republicans are confident they don’t need to spend money to keep Missouri in their presidential column.

But that doesn’t mean Missouri has no role to play in the presidential contest. “We will not see presidential candidates coming here for votes, but they will be coming here for some of the talent in our state and probably more importantly, to raise funds,” said Republican consultant James Harris.

In fact, such quests already are underway. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush stopped by a couple months ago for a private money-raising event held at Hunter Engineering, the firm owned by former Ambassador Stephen Brauer and headquartered near Lambert Field. Likely presidential contender Rick Santorum, who won Missouri’s 2012 GOP primary, addressed the state’s Republicans at their Lincoln Days festivities in February.

And several major Republican players in the state already have lined up behind GOP contenders:

  • Kansas City-based consultant Jeff Roe has been assisting GOP hopeful Ted Cruz for months and recently was named his campaign manager;
  • Gregg Keller, a St. Louis-based consultant, is a senior adviser for Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. Former U.S. Sen. Jim Talent, R-Mo., also is on board with Walker, providing policy advice. Keller and Talent previously had been active in Mitt Romney’s presidential bids.
  • Prominent St. Louis lawyer Jack Oliver, former vice chairman of the Republican National Committee, has been volunteering in the state and nationally on behalf of Jeb Bush. Oliver earlier had been the campaign finance chairman for former President George W. Bush.
  • Harris, based in Jefferson City, isn’t officially aligned with any of the 2016 candidates, although he personally backs Jeb Bush. He served as a contribution “bundler’’ for Republican nominees John McCain in 2008 and Romney in 2012.

Oliver, by the way, disagrees with those pundits who write off Missouri as a 2016 battleground state.  "Missouri is a very important state, and will be in the primary and in the general election," he said.
Some fellow Republicans who privately agree with him point to the state's top Missouri Democratic consultant, who long has been a national player:  veteran consultant/money-raiser Joyce Aboussie.

Based in St. Louis, Aboussie was the national political director for U.S. Rep. Dick Gephardt, D- St. Louis, for more than a decade. She has supported and assisted Hillary Rodham Clinton for years.

Although Aboussie isn’t talking, those close to her say she’s already hard at work for Clinton, who officially announced her presidential bid on Sunday.  And some Republicans privately predict that Aboussie will press Clinton to campaign in Missouri, as part of a broader appeal for Midwestern votes.

Most of the state’s top elected Democrats long ago announced their support for Clinton, including U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, Gov. Jay Nixon and St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay. One of the region’s top Democratic donors, Bob Clark, is also already behind Clinton.

The state’s top Republican elected officials and most of the biggest donors have, for the most part, refrained from endorsing any presidential candidates as yet. But some activists predict major Republicans will soon begin splitting into camps.

Harris contends that such Republican interest exemplifies the potential role that Missouri could play in the GOP contest. The state’s presidential primary is slated for March 2016, which could be a crucial month for the Republican contenders.

As a result, he predicted that Missouri voters could see visits by the Republican candidates next winter.

GOP point to Missouri's march to the right

Harris asserted there’s little doubt that the eventual Republican nominee will likely carry Missouri in November 2016. The state’s political preferences have shifted dramatically since the 1990s, when its voters last backed a Democrat for president — Bill Clinton.

In 1992, Clinton’s first successful bid for the White House, he carried Missouri by  more than 242,000 votes over then-President George H.W. Bush. At the time, Democrats held hefty edges in the Missouri House and Senate.

By 2012, the state’s political universe — or, at least part of it — had moved sharply to the right. Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney carried the state by almost 259,000 votes, even though President Barack Obama won re-election nationally. (Obama narrowly lost Missouri in 2008 by less than 4,000 votes.)

The Missouri General Assembly also saw huge GOP majorities in the state House and Senate, which got even larger in 2014.

Democrats, however, note that their party — led by McCaskill and Nixon — snagged all but one of the statewide offices on the 2012 ballot.

For that reason, Democratic consultant Mike Kelley -- who supports Clinton -- doesn’t buy the GOP contention that Missouri is a lost cause for Democrats in 2016. He contended that Hillary Clinton and her message will sway Missouri voters, much as her husband had done 20 years ago.

To do so, Kelley said that Clinton and her allies will ignore the state’s recent past. He added, “I believe Hillary Clinton will compete in Missouri.’’

Some Republicans cite another reason why Missouri might become a 2016 campaign battleground.  Missouri is expected to have one of the hottest contests for governor in the country, which likely may attract huge infusions of cash from the Democratic and Republican governors associations.

Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster is currently the only major Democrat running for governor, while the state's Republicans are in some disarray as a result of the Feb. 26 suicide of one of its top gubernatorial contenders, then-state Auditor Tom Schweich.

Former state House Speaker Catherine Hanaway is the best-known remaining GOP candidate for governor, but several others -- including businessman John Brunner and author/former Navy Seal Eric Greitens -- have formed exploratory committees.

In any case, some Republican operatives privately predict that national money will pour into the state from both parties in order to influence the gubernatorial contest. Another attraction will be the U.S. Senate contest, which now features Republican incumbent Roy Blunt — a powerful political player in the state and in Washington — and his announced Democratic rival, Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander.

Missouri's battles for governor and U.S. Senate, say come consultants, may force the presidential nominees to follow suit and campaign in the state.  Such a scenario could revamp Missouri's status in presidential politics.

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