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Russ Carnahan picked to lead Missouri Democratic Party out of electoral wilderness

Former Congressman Russ Carnahan was elected the chairman of the Missouri Democratic Party over the weekend.
Courtesy of Missouri Democratic Party
Former Congressman Russ Carnahan was elected chairman of the Missouri Democratic Party over the weekend.

Right before he was picked as the next chairman of the Missouri Democratic Party, former Congressman Russ Carnahan relayed an old Irish curse to members of the party’s state committee.

Carnahan said: “May those who love us, love us. And those don’t love us, may God turn their hearts. If he doesn’t turn their hearts, turn their ankles — so we will know them by their limping.”

“The Republican Party isn’t sneaking up on us limping in Missouri — they’re right in our face,” Carnahan said before he was selected. “They’re in the national news. It’s an embarrassment. It’s cringeworthy to watch how Missouri is mentioned in the national news. We have work to do.”

Carnahan reentered the political fray on Saturday to try to lead a party out of the electoral abyss. He served for eight years in the U.S. House of Representatives and four years in the Missouri House. And before being elected, he played a major role in the various campaigns for statewide office of his father, Mel Carnahan.

Among other things, Russ Carnahan is a senior policy adviser at the Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner law firm in St. Louis and Washington, D.C.

In an interview on Monday, Carnahan said he received widespread encouragement to run for the post. He said the state is better off with a strong Democratic Party.

“In a humorous way, I've gotten a lot of notes of congratulations that say: ‘Congratulations, I think,’” Carnahan said. “But what I really think seriously is that our state has been much better off in the past and can be in the future if we have a stronger Democratic Party — and better balance in the political and policy debate in this state. And one-party rule has not been very healthy in this state.”

Carnahan’s time in elected office ended in 2012 when U.S. Rep. Lacy Clay defeated him in a Democratic primary for the 1st Congressional District. Four years later, Republican Mike Parson defeated Carnahan in the race for lieutenant governor.

In some respects, 2012 was the Missouri Democratic Party’s last truly successful election cycle — when candidates easily won races for the U.S. Senate and governor. Since that year, Missouri Republicans have maintained their supermajorities in the Missouri General Assembly and captured every statewide office. They also hold both of Missouri’s U.S. Senate seats and a majority of congressional seats.

Carnahan stressed that the party needs to be financially stable in order to gain back ground. It’s highly possible that millions of dollars could flow into the state to support the Democratic nominee against U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley.

“No money, no message,” Carnahan said. “It’s like giving a speech in the middle of a beautiful forest and nobody hears you.”

He said the party can effectively fundraise both through social media activity and “good old-fashioned Democratic organizing and networking that too often people forget about.”

“That's a real asset. I think we can do that well,” Carnahan said. “I think we can do it better.”

One of the endemic problems for Missouri Democrats is the collapse of a geographic coalition that helped candidates like Carnahan’s father, who won the governorship in 1992 and 1996. Mel Carnahan was able to run up big margins in St. Louis and Kansas City while solidifying support in rural and suburban counties.

Russ Carnahan said there are plenty of Democrats in Missouri who previously served in office who could be helpful in rebuilding the party’s electoral coalition.

“That's a big strength that we have is this bench of former elected officials with a bunch of experience and a bunch of key contacts that can help the party and help others,” Carnahan said. “And I'm going to be reaching out to them. And many, frankly, have reached out to me to say: ‘We're so pleased you've stepped up into this position. We have confidence that you're going to do things well. And we want to help even though we may not have helped in the last few years.’”

Carnahan succeeds St. Louis Recorder of Deeds Michael Butler, who stepped down to devote more time to his business ventures.

Vice chairwoman calls for outreach

Carnahan defeated Yvonne Reeves-Chong, a Pulaski County native who serves as a state committeewoman. She ran for state representative in 2020, losing to state Rep. Bill Hardwick, R-Pulaski County.

Missouri Democratic Party vice chairwoman Yvonne Reeves-Chong was elected on Saturday.
Courtesy of the Missouri Democratic Party
Yvonne Reeves-Chong was elected Missouri Democratic Party vice chairwoman on Saturday.

Reeves-Chong was subsequently elected as vice chairwoman, defeating incumbent Shirley Mata of Clay County.

In a speech, Reeves-Chong cited former Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm of New York as an inspiration for her political activism.

“And not just because she looked like me,” Reeves-Chong said, “but because this was a woman who was willing to stand up when women and Black women weren’t supposed to.”

She noted that she’s spent several decades volunteering for the Democratic Party, particularly in rural parts of the state where Republicans perform well.

“I’m actually a general manager for a motorcycle dealership in Pulaski County,” Reeves-Chong said. “I talk to folks who don’t look like me and act like me all day long. I’m going to tell you that’s the secret sauce. I want to work for this party. There are folks we need to talk to.”

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