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Missouri Democrats hope new leadership will improve their future

U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill thanks supporters at an election night watch party after calling Attorney General Josh Hawley to concede.
File photo | Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill thanks supporters at an election night watch party after calling Attorney General Josh Hawley to concede.

Updated 4:45 p.m., Saturday, with election results — Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker is the new head of the Missouri Democratic Party, and outgoing state Rep. Clem Smith of St. Louis County is the new vice chairman.

Democratic activists hope that the duo — elected Saturday by party leaders gathered in Jefferson City — can help reorganize and revamp the party's image, operations and message. 

To say Missouri Democrats fared poorly in the November election is an understatement. Even as national Democrats saw huge gains, Missouri Democrats largely got wiped out – for the second time in two years. The biggest loss was the defeat of U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill in her bid for a third term.

Missouri’s results came in spite of outgoing chairman Stephen Webber recruiting more candidates than state Democrats have seen in years, and campaigning hard for them.

McCaskill’s year-long wooing of rural voters also failed, with more than two-thirds siding with Republican rival Josh Hawley. That rural wave canceled out one of the best off-year turnouts that Democrats have seen in St. Louis, St. Louis County and Kansas City.

Hawley’s election means that the GOP now holds both Missouri Senate seats, as well as six of the state’s posts in the U.S. House. Hawley will join fellow Republican Roy Blunt, who has held his Senate seat since 2011.

State Auditor Nicole Galloway will soon be the only Democrat holding statewide office in Missouri. Right before the 2016 election, Democrats held all but one statewide post. 

After Saturday's vote, Galloway praised Baker on Twitter: "...Jean built the support and has the stature we need at this critical moment for our party. I look forward to working with her."

Baker, who plans to keep her elective post as prosecutor, was elected after several rounds of balloting.  Besides her and Smith, Cydney Mayfield was elected treasurer and longtime party activist Doug Brooks was elected secretary. Mayfield is a lawyer who serves as city attorney for about a dozen rural communities.

Republicans are expected to elect new leadership in early 2019. GOP chairman Sam Graves, a Kansas City lawyer, has said he won't seek another term.

Democrats differ on what’s next

Veteran Democrat Mike Jones of St. Louis County says changing the party leaders won’t mean much unless the party can successfully rebuild its local operations that used to make Democrats such a powerful force in the state through the 1970s.

But a larger, more immediate problem, Jones said, is that Missouri party leaders long have failed to clearly delineate to the public what Democrats really stand for.

“Now it’s a label that people use not to be a Republican,’’ Jones  said.

Mike Jones
Credit Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio | File photo
Mike Jones has held numerous elective and appointive posts in St. Louis and St. Louis County government.

He also agrees with former state Democratic Chairman Roy Temple of Kansas City, who says party leaders have allowed Republicans to define them.

“There’s been a longstanding, persistent, well-funded effort by the Republican Party to brand Democrats as lunatics,’’ Temple said. “They tried to suggest that we are out of touch with the mainstream, and nothing could be further from the truth. But left unanswered, many people will conclude that’s what Democrats are.”

There’s also a split among young Democratic activists on how best to regroup.  Alison Dreith, state director for NARAL Pro-Choice Missouri – a group focused on reproductive rights – is among those calling for a stronger emphasis on progressive views and like-minded candidates.

She points to the strong showing by Democrat Cort VanOstran in his unabashedly progressive campaign to oust U.S. Rep. Ann Wagner, R-Ballwin. VanOstran lost, but snagged just over 47 percent of the 2nd District tally – the best showing by a Democrat against Wagner, among the state’s most powerful Republicans.

Democratic congressional candidate Cort VanOstran addresses potential supporters at a campaign event in west St. Louis County.
Credit Jo Mannies/St. Louis Public Radio
Democratic congressional candidate Cort VanOstran drew large crowds during his unsuccessful bid to oust U.S. Rep. Ann Wagner, R-Ballwin.

Dreith also noted that although state Democrats made no gains in their numbers in the Missouri House, a handful of changes means that the party’s contingent is now more progressive, especially when it comes to reproductive rights.

But Clayton Township Democratic committeeman Jimmie Loomis, who is treasurer of the St. Louis County Democrats, contends that a militant, leftward lean would be disastrous for Democrats statewide.

“I don’t think it’s sustainable, or frankly, quite right to win by becoming more like Trump,” Loomis said.

Only 23, Loomis says he believes McCaskill’s moderate message is best for Democrats in the long run. He says the national Democratic Party’s liberal image is a major reason why Missouri Democrats have become so unpopular in rural parts of the state.

McCaskill lowering her party profile

McCaskill and former state Attorney General Chris Koster, who lost his 2016 bid for governor, had been the state party’s major financial backers and defacto behind-the-scenes leaders for years.

McCaskill donated money directly, or encouraged major party donors to do so. With her departure from office, Democratic activists privately are worried that those dollars will disappear as well.

McCaskill declined to comment about her future political role — as a financier or potential candidate. A close ally of Webber, McCaskill did say she won’t play a role in who gets elected as the new party chairman.

While recognizing the challenges facing Missouri Democrats, McCaskill believes their fortunes will change – especially if President Donald Trump’s popularity takes a tumble as his policies begin to hurt more American, especially rural voters.

"President Trump camped out in Missouri and Indiana and succeeded in pumping up the enthusiasm of the most conservative voters, especially in the rural parts of our state,” she said.  “But I am confident that the party of President Trump will begin to lose ground as tariffs and deficits and health care issues pile up. The pendulum will swing back."

Follow Jo Mannies on Twitter: @jmannies

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