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Hensley enters the fray in fast-moving race for attorney general

Former Cass County Prosecutor Teresa Hensley
Courtesy of Hensley's Twitter page

When Scott Sifton bowed out of the attorney general’s race last week,Democrats appeared to avoid a resource-draining primary battle between the Affton state senator and St. Louis County Assessor Jake Zimmerman. 

Well, at least for a few hours.

Before the preverbal ink (or, in this site’s case, pixels) dried on Sifton’s departure from the 2016 statewide scene, former Cass County Teresa Hensley announced she would enter the Democratic scramble for attorney. It showed that if the goal of getting Sifton out of the attorney general’s race was to avoid a primary, that plan didn’t really succeed.

But Hensley said she's running because she believes she has what it takes to succeed Attorney General Chris Koster, who is expected to run for governor next year.

“I think most people who run for office will recognize that a primary certainly gets them up and running, gets their name out there more, gets them working really hard,” Hensley said in a telephone interview. “And so I think that certainly if there’s a primary that it doesn’t hurt. It doesn’t hurt to have people out campaigning and working and talking to folks across the state.”

Hensley served as Cass County’s prosecutor for roughly a decade, which she says will be an alluring attribute in the Democratic primary and, if she outflanks Zimmerman, the general election. “I think they’ll look at the fact that there is someone with some prosecutorial experience and that will matter – regardless of whether they’re a Democrat or a Republican,” she said.

In some ways, Hensley is at least strategically emulating her predecessor as Cass County prosecutor – Koster. Koster’s statewide playbook involves showcasing prosecutorial experience and promising Missourians that the next attorney general will be a crime fighter.

Those types of sentiments are part of the reason some Sifton backers -- like Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce – are backing Hensley. As Joyce said in a telephone interview, "I think it's good to have a prosecutor in that job,'' since the AG is "the top prosecutor in the state.” 

St. Louis County Assessor Jake Zimmerman
Credit Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis County Assessor Jake Zimmerman

In a statement, Zimmerman said he’s “looking forward to seeing her on the campaign trail.” 

“It’s the attorney general’s job to make sure our laws are applied equally and fairly, no matter who you are,” Zimmerman said. “I expect a friendly and vigorous debate on our qualifications and the issues.”

Keeping things friendly could be important for Democrats to keep the attorney general’s office in their column, said University of Missouri-St. Louis political science professor Dave Robertson. He said Republicans are experiencing a similar balancing act in the increasingly unwieldy race for governor – or the GOP attorney general battle between state Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, and University of Missouri-Columbia law professor Josh Hawley.

“If they’re not too bitter and too devastating, which happens in primaries sometimes, it can help candidates perform better in the general election,” Robertson said. “The risk is that two candidates that have a lot of funding can put ads on the air attacking each other, provide a script for the opponent for the other party in the general election – and make it easier for the candidate that survives the tough and bitter primary.”

The long run

But Robertson said Hensley has her work cut out for her to catch up with Zimmerman. For one thing, Zimmerman has nearly $1 million in cash on hand – while Hensley is essentially starting from scratch. And Zimmerman’s home base of St. Louis County possesses one of the largest Democratic voting blocs in the state – especially compared to somewhat Republican-leaning Cass County. (Cass County, though, is part of the Kansas City area.) 

Hensley lost decisively to U.S. Rep. Vicky Hartzler, R-Harrisonville, in 2012.
Credit Courtesy of Vicky Hartlzer's Facebook page
Hensley lost decisively to U.S. Rep. Vicky Hartzler, R-Harrisonville, in 2012.

“Having just escaped a tough primary fight, a lot of Democrats are going to want to rally around one candidate,” Robertson said. “Zimmerman is already in the race. And I think it’s going to be an uphill fight her to get leverage going forward in a primary.”

The other mark against Hensley is her electoral record. While Zimmerman hasn’t faced particularly competitive elections in the recent past, Hensley lost re-election as prosecutor last cycle. She also lost fairly decisively to U.S. Rep. Vicky Hartlzer, R-Harrisonville, in a particularly down year for the GOP.

But perhaps in an example of the Missouri trend of “winning by losing,” Hensley said her experience running against Hartzler is a plus – especially when she had to raise a lot of money to run across a large geographic territory.

“While it was not a statewide race, certainly running in 24 counties is exhausting and takes a lot of work and effort in raising money,” Hensley said. “So I think that I am able and ready and will work hard – almost hard as I did in 2012. And I do believe across the state there is an opportunity as well as people look at this race.”

For Sifton's part, he said his loss in 2002 to state Rep. Kathlyn Fares, R-Webster Groves, gave him the necessary experience to win tougher contests later in his political career. That includes a hard fought victory over state Sen. Jim Lembke -- a Lemay Republican and one of the most celebrated campaigners of the St. Louis region.

"There are some people who go through life as if they’re afraid to lose a race ever, and then there are others who take the plunge and know you can’t control everything that happens," Sifton said. "But they’re going to give it everything they’ve got. And they’d rather lose trying to do something impactful than win not doing something as meaningful."

"And I see in Teresa not somebody who’s had a loss or two, but somebody who’s won a couple of races in a pretty tough territory in Cass County," he added. "And that’s really important. If you can win in Cass County – and she’s done it a couple times – I think that’s a big boost." 

St. Louis Public Radio political reporter Jo Mannies contributed information for this article.

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