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On the Trail, an occasional column by St. Louis Public Radio political reporter Jason Rosenbaum, takes an analytical look at politics and policy across Missouri.

Could ‘a ton of money’ solve Missouri Democrats’ statewide election woes?

Rici Hoffarth
St. Louis Public Radio
Both parties expect the 2024 U.S. Senate contest in Missouri to be expensive.

As he prepares to depart from his post as Missouri Democratic Party chairman later this month, Michael Butler is more optimistic about the status of his party than most observers.

Despite being shut out of statewide offices for the first time in generations, Missouri Democrats are starting to make headway in state legislative contests, said Butler, who is also the St. Louis Recorder of Deeds. And he noted that U.S. Senate nominee Trudy Busch Valentine, despite her loss to Eric Schmitt, performed better in 2022 than Democratic gubernatorial contender Nicole Galloway did in 2020.

Michael Butler makes his remarks after taking the oath of office for the office of Recorder of Deeds for the City of St. Louis in the rotunda of the St. Louis City Hall in St. Louis on January 2, 2018. Butler is stepping aside at the end of the month as chairman of the Missouri Democratic Party.
Bill Greenblatt | UPI
Michael Butler makes his remarks after taking the oath of office for Recorder of Deeds in the rotunda of the St. Louis City Hall in 2018. Butler is stepping aside at the end of the month as chairman of the Missouri Democratic Party.

But keeping the momentum going in 2024, Butler said, will take more than hope. It will require lots of money.

“We're at a huge financial disadvantage at this point,” Butler said.

Missouri Republicans typically have more money to spend in statewide and legislative contests. But that may change in 2024, with U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley up for reelection.

Both parties expect Hawley’s run for a second term to be expensive. Part of it could be that Hawley has become a polarizing national figure after objecting to President Joe Biden’s 2020 victory in Pennsylvania. Hawley predicts that interest groups will pour money into Missouri during next year’s election season.

“I fully expect it will be a huge, huge amount of money from out of state,” Hawley said during this month’s Lincoln Days event in Springfield, adding, "and we’ll just have to counter that with the force of our record and our ideas. And I think we’ll prevail.”

So far, the only major Democratic candidate running against Hawley is Lucas Kunce, an attorney and Marine veteran from Independence. He lost to Busch Valentine in the 2022 Democratic primaries but was a strong fundraiser — often outraising GOP contenders.

During an interview earlier this year, Kunce said his campaign infrastructure that he built “from scratch” in 2022 will be helpful for his 2024 campaign.

“I think we're in a really, really good spot right now, based on everything we did last time,” Kunce said.

In 2018, Josh Hawley defeated incumbent U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill.
Carolina Hidalgo
St. Louis Public Radio
U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley said he expects to face an onslaught of money in his reelection bid next year, though the state trended Republican in recent years.

Is money a cure-all?

Democratic statewide contenders in 2016, 2018 and 2020 had access to national funds and still lost decisively to GOP candidates.

“Even if the Democratic nominee raises a ton of money, this should still be a seat that Republicans shouldn't have a whole lot of trouble holding,” said Kyle Kondik of the University of Virginia-based Center for Politics. “I guess what you might see is that if in fact the Democratic nominee just goes bananas raising money, then it may be that Hawley actually needs or feels like he needs some help from outside forces on the Republican side.”

Democrats have a tough task ahead of them next year to keep the Senate, particularly because they’ll be defending seats in red presidential states like Montana, West Virginia and Ohio. Kondik said it’s possible Missouri could be one of the few offensive targets, along with Florida and Texas.

Still, Kondik’s Center for Politics rates the Missouri Senate contest as “safe Republican” at this point.

“We'll just have to see if it develops along the way,” Kondik said. “Being able to tell a Democratic donor in an e-mail blast that you're running against Josh Hawley — you know, that may get some people to open their wallets.”

Lucas Kunce, democratic candidate for Missouri’s open U.S. Senate seat
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Democrat Lucas Kunce is embarking on his second bid for the U.S. Senate in 2024. He raised significant amounts of money in 2022. And if he gets the nomination, he could have access to more when he runs against Hawley.

While money certainly wouldn’t hurt the efforts of someone like Kunce, the pathway to upend Hawley will be for him or any Democratic nominee to perform better in Missouri’s rural counties and conservative suburbs. Democrats have failed to piece together the necessary urban-suburban-rural coalition for the past four election cycles, leading to an unprecedented GOP sweep of statewide offices.

There could be factors besides campaign finances that lower GOP margins in rural and suburban counties, such as a weak presidential nominee or a statewide effort to repeal Missouri’s abortion ban.

But for Butler the key question is whether his successor will be able to leverage money coming into the state for the Senate race to help other contenders such as candidates for governor or the legislature.

“That is exactly why parties are still relevant today,” Butler said.

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