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Tight JeffCo Senate race could be a bellwether for the state

Democrat Robert Butler, left, seeks to replace state Sen. Paul Wieland, right, to represent Missouri's 22nd Senate District.
Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio
Democrat Robert Butler, left, seeks to replace state Sen. Paul Wieland, at right, to represent Missouri's 22nd Senate District.

Voters in Jefferson County will be crucial in determining which candidate wins the race for U.S. Senate, but there’s also a highly competitive contest for Missouri’s 22nd Senate District.

In two weeks, Jefferson County residents will choose between Republican incumbent Paul Wieland and Democratic challenger Robert Butler to represent them in the Missouri Capitol.

The county has become a bellwether for Missouri politics over the course of the last decade. The largely blue-collar district has swung like a pendulum from Democratic-leaning to Republican-leaning but remains solidly purple, making county voters a valuable barometer for state politics.

Framing the issues

Wieland said when he knocks on doors in the district, he hears about the economy. Butler said voters express the most anxiety about health care and education.

“People are still looking for better opportunities. There’s a lot more of them out there, but that’s one thing you hear every day when you’re out knocking doors,” Wieland said.

His biggest priorities include bringing an inland port to the county and rebuilding crumbling roads and bridges, which would attract county jobs.

“We need to find a way to find more jobs in the county, so that less of our constituents have to get on the highway and drive into St. Louis County or St. Louis city, and I’ve been trying to do that by trying to work with getting more funding for the ports down here.”

Data from 2016 shows that 75 percent of Jefferson County residents commute outside of the county for work, according to the Missouri Economic Research and Information Center.

Butler lists funding public education and reforming health care at the top of his priorities.

“I think that’s the question that I get more than anything, is about the reduced revenues for public education in Jefferson County,” Butler said. “People are very unhappy about that.”

He added residents were equally focused on health-care coverage.

“They can’t afford their health care,” Butler said. “They want to see changes. We’re letting billions of our tax dollars stay in Washington, D.C. and not come back to help us here in Missouri.”

Butler favors expanding Medicaid and increasing the minimum wage —  all as part of his efforts to “represent working families, and just try to make things a little easier for people who are working paycheck to paycheck,” he said.

His campaign is also focused on courting the labor vote.

Right-to-work aftershocks?

While both candidates are vying for the support of labor, Butler, in line with other Jefferson County Democrats, is predicting that labor will play an outsized role in the midterms following the overwhelming defeat in August of the right-to-work referendum.

“I do think labor is going to be an enormous issue. Again, 78 percent of Jefferson Countians came out and voted against right to work. And I think that people in labor recognize the job’s not done.”

But Wieland disagrees. While he brands himself as one of the rare pro-labor Republicans, he doesn’t think labor will be a big motivator for voters this November.

“Even though the labor bosses may say, ‘We think you ought to vote for this guy.’ The people down here in Jefferson County have known me for over 20 years. When I knock on their door, and I talk to them, they understand that I am working for working families, and I am a Republican who looks out for the little guy,” said Wieland.

Instead, he’s relying on what he calls Jefferson County’s bedrock issues to secure votes in his favor. “I’m pro-life, I’m always a strong Second-Amendment supporter, and I also support labor. Those are the things it seems like the majority of the voters in Jefferson County want.

Electoral dynamics

Butler calls the last few election cycles that have trended Republican “out of whack.”

He pointed to a February special election where state Rep. Mike Revis was elected as a sign of a blue wave.

“That’s sort of a return to the norm of the numbers that we used to see in Jefferson County, and I think it’s a real indicator of the feelings in Jefferson County,” Butler said. “It’s better than any poll we’ve got.”

At its core, he said, “Jefferson County is still a purple area. It’s not red. Some people have said that; I think it’s a myth.”

Wieland feels differently. He predicts the majority of winners in Jefferson County will be Republicans, with Democrats winning “here or there.”

He’s served in Missouri Politics since 1994 — first as state representative, and then as a state senator starting in 2014. He said he’s observed a lot of change in the county since his first race in 1994 when people advised him, “‘If you want to win young man, you better run as a Democrat, because Republicans don’t get elected in Jefferson County.’”

“Now we’ve almost went full circle the other direction. Candidates that are thinking about running that aren’t really die-hard conservatives or die-hard Republicans are saying, ‘Well, if I want to run, I better run as a Republican. So, I think that mood is out there,” said Wieland.

However, he did say: “We can’t run against Obama no more. That’s old news. So, this is going to be the true test to see if we can continue to push those Republican majorities and move forward, or are the Democrats going to do a better job of getting out their people and we’re going to have a setback election? I think still, from the mood, we’re going to be successful.”

Follow Abigail Censky on Twitter: @AbigailCensky