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Citing redistricting changes, Ben Samuels drops out of 2nd Congressional District race

Ben Samuels on April 29 at St. Louis Public Radio's headquarters in Grand Center.
Jason Rosenbaum
St. Louis Public Radio
Ben Samuels, shown on April 29 at St. Louis Public Radio, announced Thursday that he was withdrawing from the 2nd Congressional District contest.

Updated at 11:45 a.m. on Friday with comments from Ray Reed and Trish Gunby:

Democrat Ben Samuels is withdrawing from the 2nd Congressional District contest, pointing to how the St. Louis-area district became much less favorable for his party after redistricting, which moved him out of the district.

Samuels believes that Missouri’s redistricting saga should prompt sharp questions about how states handle the once-every-10-years process, which can be critical to how the state is represented in the U.S. House of Representatives.

“All of these districts across the country have gotten more partisan and more extreme,” Samuels said. “And it's unfortunate that the state legislature has the unilateral authority, not to just draw candidates out of districts, but to make districts better for themselves.”

Samuels is a former aide to Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker whose family has deep ties to the St. Louis region and Missouri. He’d been the clear fundraising leader in the race to take on Rep. Ann Wagner, R-Ballwin, raising well over $1 million for a district that had been competitive in 2018 and 2020.

But the Missouri General Assembly redrew the 2nd District to include all of Franklin County and part of Warren County — two voting jurisdictions that are heavily Republican. That makes the district much more GOP leaning than it was in past election cycles.

Missouri Republicans had made no secret before the redistricting process started that they wanted to make the 2nd District more favorable to the GOP. But Samuels noted that different versions of the map drew his residence in Creve Coeur into the 1st Congressional District. (Candidates for Congress do not need to live in the districts they seek to represent.)

“With the ground rules changed, and I was drawn out of the district, and that just changes the situation here,” Samuels said.

With Samuels’ departure from the contest, there are two Democrats seeking the 2nd District nomination — state Rep. Trish Gunby and Brentwood native Ray Reed. Wagner has several GOP opponents, including past St. Louis County executive nominee Paul Berry III.

In a statement, Gunby's campaign said that the state lawmaker "won races with higher margins for Trump before, and though the footprint of MO-02 has expanded, our playbook remains the same."

"For ten months, this campaign has been working in the heart of the redrawn district," the statement read. "Now, voters in Franklin County and Warren County can expect to see Trish in the coming months."

Reed said in a Tweet that it took courage to run for Congress, adding "I commend him for lifting up the economic issues for folks across MO2 and the plight of our small business community."

Gov. Mike Parson presents the Missouri State of the State address to a joint gathering of the House and Senate on Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2022, at the state capitol in Jefferson City, Missouri.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
The Missouri legislature is responsible for drawing the state's congressional districts.

Changing the system

Like other states, Missouri’s legislature is responsible for redrawing its congressional districts. Either a bipartisan commission or appellate judges are in charge of overhauling state House and Senate districts.

Samuels said that this past redistricting cycle produced few districts that are considered competitive, something he added is a major problem for both the state of federal legislative politics and for voters.

“What's happening in Illinois or in New York is just as bad as what's happening here or in Texas or in Florida,” Samuels said. “The challenge is … that everyone has an incentive to draw themselves safe seats — not seats that are representative of the community and not seats that are designed to be fair.”

He said that finding an alternative system to draw districts isn’t cut and dried. California, for instance, uses a commission for redistricting — but outlets like ProPublica noted that Democrats actively manipulated those panels in order to get a more advantageous map. And Missouri’s state legislative redistricting commission often deadlock and hand the process over to appellate judges, who may not be attuned to the nuances required to draw competitive maps.

While acknowledging that commissions are not a panacea, Samuels said there are examples of them creating competitive districts. He suggested that perhaps states could enter into pacts to have similar redistricting systems.

“New York and California are pretty good examples where commissions didn't work,” Samuels said. “Colorado and Michigan are examples where the commission's worked quite well. And you end up with congressional districts, some of which are Republican, some of which are Democratic, and a lot are pretty purple which represents two pretty purple states.”

Compactness questioned

Samuels contends that the map that the legislature passed and Gov. Mike Parson signed into law doesn’t conform with the state’s constitutional requirements around compactness.

But even though that may be something that could be challenged in court, Samuels said it’s highly possible that courts may not act this cycle since it’s so close to an election. Another barrier is that a 2012 Supreme Court decision upholding a map enacted in 2011 weakened the Missouri Constitution’s compactness requirements for congressional districts.

“You don't need to be any sort of elections expert to look at that map and say that's not compact, and so I do think we have a compelling case,” Samuels said. “I think the challenges were that we’re just too close to an election, right now, for that to change. But we're going to continue fighting that and hope for districts that are fairer, more balanced, more representative.”

For the time being, Samuels said he will refund most of the money that he’s raised for the contest. Any money that’s left over will be used to “support candidates locally, who I think push for a lot of the good, common sense bipartisan reforms that we need in this country.”

“The extremism is really out of control,” Samuels said. “I think people's willingness to subvert democracy is out of control. And despite the fact that I've been gerrymandered out of my district, none of that changes. Those are things I'm going to continue fighting for.”

Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum

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