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Missouri Republicans bank on more presidential attention in 2016, and a trickle-down effect

Clockwise from upper left: Mike Huckabee, Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, Rick Perry, Rick Santorum, Ben Carson
official photos
Clockwise from upper left: Mike Huckabee, Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, Rick Perry, Rick Santorum, Ben Carson

At least six Republican presidential hopefuls will be headed to St. Louis in less than two weeks to address conservatives at an Eagle Forum convention.

State Republican Party chairman John Hancock predicts those visits are only the start.

The GOP contenders expected at the convention include: Rick Santorum, Ben Carson, Rand Paul, Rick Perry, Mike Huckabee and Ted Cruz.

Eagle Forum president Ed Martin is heartened, but not surprised: “The reason people are coming to an event like this is because we’re a competitive state and it matters.”

Martin believes the attractions include legendary Eagle Forum founder Phyllis Schlafly and the state's active conservative GOP base.

But Hancock hopes that a newer factor could play a key role in wooing Republican presidential candidates to the Show-Me State. Hancock and other Republicans are pinning part of their hopes on a change that’s been made in how the state will be allocating its presidential delegates for the 2016 presidential contest.

New way to award Republican presidential delegates

In the past, Missouri Republicans have awarded most of their 54 delegates at stake (three others belong to party leaders)  to one person: the winner of the state’s primaries or caucuses. But for 2016, the delegates will be doled out depending on which candidate carries each of the state’s eight congressional districts.

Ed Martin talks about his work as chairman of the Missouri Republican Party, and his new job as president of the Eagle Forum with 'St. Louis on the Air' host Don Marsh  on Feb. 12, 2015, at St. Louis Public Radio in St. Louis.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio file photo
Ed Martin talked with the St. Louis Public Radio political team when he was chairman of the Missouri Republican Party, before taking the helm at Eagle Forum.

A portion will be reserved for the overall Missouri winner. But the upshot is that a number of presidential candidates could end up with some of the state’s delegates after the state’s March 16 primary.

(The only exception to the plan is if one candidate snags more than 50 percent of all the GOP votes cast statewide; that person then would collect all the delegates. But party leaders don't expect that to happen in a crowded field.)

“The way our delegates are going to be allocated makes Missouri particularly attractive because it’s winner-take-all by congressional district,” Hancock said. “Candidates, even the ones who may not be flush with money, can pick a couple of media markets, maybe Springfield and mid-Missouri, and they can compete there and maybe win a few delegates.”

Hancock argues that those delegates could be crucial for candidates in a crowded GOP field.

The chairman predicts the state GOP's Lincoln Days festivities, slated for February in St. Louis, will be a magnet for Republican presidential contenders.

As a result, Hancock added, “I expect this presidential primary to see the best turnout of any primary we’ve ever had. There’s just a tremendous amount of excitement about these candidates.”

Trickle down voting?

Republicans are hoping presidential excitement will trickle down to the GOP’s statewide ticket for 2016 and end the dramatic political-power divide in Jefferson City.

Although the General Assembly is controlled by huge Republican majorities in the Missouri House and Senate, Democrats control five of the six statewide offices. Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder is the only Republican.

The two parties split the state’s U.S. Senate seats – Republican Roy Blunt’s post will be on the 2016 ballot – and the GOP holds a 6-to-2 edge among the U.S. House seats.

Democrats blame the GOP’s edge in the U.S. House and General Assembly on the Republicans’ prowess in the 2011 redistricting. But the result does give the GOP significantly more clout in the legislative branch, which the party hopes can be expanded to the executive branches in Jefferson City and Washington in the 2016 election.

McCaskill argued Saturday at the state Democrats' Truman Dinner in St. Louis that the divide is proof that Missouri is not as Republican-leaning as some pundits and political activists assert.

All sides agree that a strong presidential contender at the top of the ticket on Missouri’s 2016 ballot will help. However, some of that edge arguably has been lost with the state’s elimination of automatic straight-ticket voting ballot that existed prior to the 2008 presidential election. (Under straight-ticket voting, a voter only had to cast one vote for one party’s entire slate of candidates.)

Split-ticket voting in 2012

Democrats say their party has been splitting its presidential delegates in Missouri for years, but it's unclear how beneficial that practice has been when it comes to other offices on the ballot.

Some Democrats believe that now-President Barack Obama's presence on the 2008 ticket may have boosted African-American turnout -- which did appear to help Democratic candidates further down the ticket.

But Missouri’s 2012 election results is proof that the presidential-candidate influence on the rest of the ticket can be limited. Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney easily carried the state. But all but one of Missouri’s statewide posts went to Democrats, arguably because of the coattails of Democrat Claire McCaskill – who handily won her Senate re-election with an assist from her opponent, Republican Todd Akin, and his “legitimate rape’’ remark.

All that history simply serves as a backdrop for what Missouri’s attraction may be in the 2016 presidential contest. Hillary Clinton is the only Democratic contender to visit the state so far. Top Republicans have come by -- notably Paul, Scott Walker and Jeb Bush -- but only for private money-raising events.

Missouri Republicans are banking that will change after the Eagle Forum’s three-day convention, which begins Sept. 11 at the Airport Marriott.

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