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Missouri and Illinois discover their presidential primaries may matter after all

Proposition B asks to voters to allow their local city or county to continue collecting sales tax on cars bought out of state
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Those headed to the polls in St. Louis in 2012 will be voting in an election run by a different St. Louis Board of Elections. Three new members were named today by Gov. Jay Nixon. (via Flickr/ Daniel Morrison)

Who would have thought it?

Even a few weeks ago, some pundits predicted that Missouri and its presidential delegates – Republican (52) and Democrat (84) – would be inconsequential in this year’s combative contests.

But now, most everybody concedes that’s no longer the case. Missouri, Illinois and the three other states holding March 15th primaries – Ohio, Florida and North Carolina -- will likely matter a lot.

“In such an unorthodox election cycle, Missouri does have a role now,” said Republican consultant James Harris.

The major parties’ two front runners – Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton – each did well on Super Tuesday. But not well enough to seal their nominations.  The March 15th primaries could well determine if either of them, or both, amass unbeatable leads or fall back.

Harris, who’s based in Jefferson City and isn’t working for any of the presidential hopefuls, predicts that the remaining contenders in both parties will pay close attention to Missouri because it appears to be still up for grabs.

Missouri Republicans in play

Trump and rival Ted Cruz, says Harris, are likely to drop into GOP-rich territory such as southwest Missouri.  For Trump, the attraction would be working-class white voters, the consultant said, while Cruz is likely to target fellow evangelicals who pack the region’s mega-churches.

Meanwhile, some Missouri Republicans expect GOP contender Marco Rubio – who didn’t fare as well as he’d hoped on Super Tuesday – to visit the St. Louis area, home of many of the wealthy establishment Republicans who had backed Jeb Bush before he dropped out.

Credit Jo Mannies/St. Louis Public Radio
Cruz volunteers hand out fliers and sweets at Missouri Lincoln Days, held last weekend in Westport Plaza.

Take, for example, U.S. Rep. Ann Wagner, R-Ballwin, a former Bush stalwart. Last week, she got a call from the Rubio camp within minutes after she told St. Louis Public Radio that she wasn’t sure who’d she now back. The campaign had apparently spotted this reporter's Tweet recounting Wagner's comment.

Missouri’s Republican delegates will be awarded proportionally, unless one candidate gets 51 percent of the vote. Some GOP activists believe that’s a mistake and that Missouri might be getting more attention if it had remained a Republican winner-take-all state like Florida and Ohio.

Missouri GOP party chairman John Hancock says he stands by his belief that splitting up Missouri’s delegates will end up being a smart move.

None of the Republican presidential hopefuls have offices in Missouri, and its unclear if they will.  Still, several have recruited top Republican operatives or supporters with key knowledge of the state. Trump’s Missouri team, for example, is led by Brian Marriott, a native who used to work for George W. Bush.

Cruz's campaign manager is Jeff Roe, considered by many to be Missouri's most influential and successful Republican consultant.

The Trump and Cruz operations were the most visible at the state GOP’s statewide Lincoln Days festivities, held last weekend at Westport Plaza. That was intriguing since no major Missouri Republicans have yet to endorse Trump. A large bloc are backing Rubio.

Although Illinois may attract some visits from the GOP hopefuls, its status as a Democratic-leaning state may discourage them from setting up any significant campaign operations there.

Clinton, Sanders put down roots

Clinton already has made two public campaign stops in the St. Louis area, and has lined up most of the state’s top Democrats. Many of them were on hand for the recent grand opening of her St. Louis office, situated in a union hall in midtown.

Her campaign isn’t saying if Clinton – or her spouse, former President Bill Clinton – will be in Missouri or nearby southern Illinois before March 15.

Hillary Clinton St. Louis union dec. 2015
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Hillary Clinton appeals to supporters at December rally in St. Louis.

But national political director Amanda Renteria points to the campaign operation that has been put in place in Missouri in the last couple weeks.

While emphasizing that “every single state matters,’’ Renteria added in an interview that Missouri is among the states that may be in play in the fall.

“There’s also no doubt that Missouri is special, in that we look at it as not only important in the primary, but if we are so lucky to get into the general, we’ve got to make sure we’re laying a foundation that can really be helpful in the general election as well,” Renteria said.

Part of that foundation appears to include appealing to minority voters. On Wednesday, the Clinton campaign rolled out a list of at least 52 prominent African-American officials throughout Missouri who support Clinton.

They include U.S. Reps. William Lacy Clay of St. Louis and Emanuel Cleaver of Kansas City; St. Louis Comptroller Darlene Green and Board of Alderman President Lewis Reed.

In a statewide election in Missouri, African-Americans can provide about a quarter of the Democratic vote. That percentage could be even higher in a presidential primary, which typically has lower overall turnout.

Meanwhile, rival Bernie Sanders’ campaign has set up a new office in downtown St. Louis, augmenting an early field office that has been operating for weeks in south St. Louis.

Sanders’ supporters have been canvassing the area.

On Friday, he’s expected to be across the river at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville – in keeping with his campaign’s appeal to young voters. Sanders’ event is scheduled for 10 a.m. in the university’s  Vadalabene Center.

Missouri and Illinois will award their Democratic delegates proportionally, a practice used by the party nationally.

Missouri, Illinois primaries differ

Although Missouri and Illinois will hold their presidential primaries on the same day, there will be key differences.

Illinois also is holding its primaries for other statewide, legislative and local offices on March 15.   Missouri will hold those primaries in August.

The other key difference?  Missouri’s presidential primaries are “open,’’ meaning that voters in theory can choose whichever party’s ballot they want. Missouri voters don’t register by political party and no record is kept of which party’s ballot a voter has chosen.

Illinois has what’s officially called a “semi-closed’’ primary system. Voters can register by political party – and those voters won’t be allowed to cast a ballot in another party’s primary. But unaffiliated voters can request any party’s ballot in a primary.

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