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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.

Some Missouri Democrats question whether U.S. Senate primary is too crowded

A collage of photos featuring Missouri politicians Karla May, Lucas Kunce and Wesley Bell.
Tristen Rouse
St. Louis Public Radio
Democratic candidates in the 2024 Missouri Senate race, from left, Karla May, Lucas Kunce and Wesley Bell.

Maureen Jordan has been a Lucas Kunce fan for a long time.

The Manchester resident and chair of the Chesterfield Township Democrats was sold on Kunce after having coffee early on during his first bid for the U.S. Senate. Kunce fell short in the Democratic primary, but he's running again for the right to take on Republican U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley next year.

Even though Jordan is still backing Kunce in 2024, she conceded that things became trickier when St. Louis County Prosecutor Wesley Bell jumped into the race.

“The bad part for me is that I remember introducing Wesley, as our beloved county prosecutor,” Jordan said. “And when he announced, I sadly had to text him and say: ‘You know how fond I am of you. But I have been following Lucas since 2021.’ And just like Solomon in the Bible, you're asking us to split the baby. And it's hard.”

In some respects, Jordan’s anecdote showcases the conundrum for Missouri Democrats ahead of next August’s primary.

With Kunce, Bell and state Sen. Karla May in the contest, Democrats have three candidates who have developed deep relationships with voters. Some are wondering openly whether having a competitive primary makes sense. They say that a general election race against Hawley will be expensive and that the party’s nominee may need the maximum amount of time to cultivate support in a state that’s become solidly Republican.

When asked if it was a good thing that there’s a primary for the U.S. Senate, Democratic state Rep. Steve Butz of St. Louis, said: “I’m going to say emphatically no.”

“We need a unified voice,” said Butz, who is backing Kunce.

Others say a primary will be helpful to whoever wins the nomination, as they’ll have to spend time barnstorming the state for support.

“There should be a process where people interested in running for the Senate as a Democrat have to first clear that hurdle. It helps them as a candidate,” said Chesterfield resident Paul Kalil, who is backing Bell. “It sharpens their message and connects to the people they’re going to be representing.”

Missouri politician Lucas Kunce speaks into a microphone against a black background. He is framed in the foreground by a red, white and blue Missouri flag.
Tristen Rouse
St. Louis Public Radio
Lucas Kunce speaks during a rally on Aug. 28 at the District 9 Machinist Hall in Bridgeton.
A diptych of two vertical images. The left image is of a Lucas Kunce campaign poster, onto which a man's shadow is projected by a powerful purple-white light. The right image is of a crowd, seen from the back, with the focus on one woman's hands as she claps.
Tristen Rouse
St. Louis Public Radio
LEFT: The shadow of Lucas Kunce is projected onto a campaign poster during a rally on Aug. 28, at the District 9 Machinist Hall in Bridgeton, Mo. RIGHT: Attendees clap while Lucas Kunce speaks during a that same rally.

Emphasizing their strengths

For the most part, the candidates are not focused on whether primaries are good or bad.

Kunce held a boisterous rally at the Machinists Union Hall in Bridgeton earlier this summer that featured a number of speakers who represented influential labor union groups backing the Marine veteran and attorney from Independence.

“We're raising the money, we're building the organization to actually win,” Kunce said. “We need a win for working people. … I grew up in a working-class neighborhood, and my entire life is about serving that neighborhood.”

Kunce supporters like Butz point to his stout fundraising and well-organized campaign as reasons to back him. But some Democrats say that Bell and May’s entry into the contest may suggest unease about Kunce being the nominee against Hawley.

“Lucas did not get the nomination the last time,” said state Rep. Doug Clemens, D-St. Ann, who is neutral in the primary. “And politically speaking, when you fail to get a nomination it means you’re able to be a loser again.”

Bell, during a speech to Chesterfield Township Democrats, pointed to his ability in 2018 to boost Democratic turnout in St. Louis County. Bell’s win against longtime St. Louis Prosecutor Bob McCulloch was fueled by a coalition of white progressive and Black voters.

Bell said if he’s able to maximize the number of Democratic voters who come to the polls and win more backing in rural counties, there’s a path to defeating Hawley in 2024.

“My singular focus is to fire Josh Hawley,” Bell said. “And in order to do that, it's going to require all Democrats coming together in the general election and getting the turnout that we need in order to do it.”

While May hasn’t been as strong a fundraiser as either Kunce or Bell, she’s pointed to tough primaries that she’s won since entering state politics as a strength of her candidacy.

And like Bell, May represented a racially diverse constituency both in the Missouri House and Senate — and made an impact in a General Assembly that Republicans have dominated for years.

“If you know my history, they have not met Karla May,” May said in response to a question about whether national Democratic leaders may want Kunce to be the nominee. “Because they always underestimate. And I am a strong candidate. And my history in this state and my record speaks for itself.”

Missouri politician Karla May stands amidst a crowd of supporters, smiling.
Tristen Rouse
St. Louis Public Radio
State Sen. Karla May, D-St. Louis, greets supporters at the announcement of her U.S. Senate bid on July 11 outside the Civil Courts Building in St. Louis.
A diptych of two vertical images. The left image is of Missouri politician Karla May's hands, held together at the fingers, in front of her bright red suit. The right image is of a sign, reading "Hashtag Healing America Starting With Missouri," which is leaned up against a handrail.
Tristen Rouse
St. Louis Public Radio
LEFT: The hands of state Sen. Karla May, D-St. Louis, after she announced her bid for the U.S. Senate on July 11 outside the Civil Courts Building in St. Louis. RIGHT: A Karla May campaign sign leans against a handrail after that same announcement.

Candidates tout support from Black elected officials

All three candidates have made explicit overtures to get endorsements from prominent African American officials since Black voters will likely play a major role in the primary election.

Before Kunce spoke in Bridgeton, two of his most prominent surrogates — St. Louis Alderman Rasheen Aldridge and St. Louis County Councilwoman Shalonda Webb — spoke on his behalf. Kunce also has the backing of former U.S. Rep. Bill Clay and St. Louis County Councilwoman Rita Days.

Kunce said he’s focused “on building a coalition that can win statewide — and that includes having strong support from Black communities.”

But the entry of two Black candidates into the contest meant that some people who previously supported Kunce switched sides.

They include Ferguson Mayor Ella Jones, who served on the Ferguson City Council with Bell. Jones said the two forged an especially close relationship in the aftermath of Michael Brown’s shooting death in Ferguson.

"Wesley and I just go back a long way,” Jones said.

Missouri politician Wesley Bell uses a downward pointed finger to make a point while speaking. Behind him is a lush scene of greenery and trees.
Tristen Rouse
St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis County prosecutor and Democratic candidate for Senate Wesley Bell speaks during a fundraising event on Monday at a volunteer’s home in Glendale.
A diptych of two vertical images. The left image is of three women looking up at a man whose hand and shoulder are visible in the frame. The right image is of a stack of blue Wesley Bell campaign cards laying out on a table — the top of the cards says "Help Build Our Winning Coalition" and the front of the card features a QR code.
Tristen Rouse
St. Louis Public Radio
LEFT: Jennifer Slavic Lohman, Creve Coeur Councilwoman Nicole Greer and Tamar Hodges listen to Wesley Bell as he speaks during a fundraising event on Monday, at a volunteer’s home in Glendale, Mo. RIGHT: Cards encouraging people to donate to Bell’s campaign are laid out on a table.

Bell, who has received support from other mayors of traditionally African-American cities in St. Louis County, said that his service on the Ferguson City Council and as prosecutor shows that he can be a mediator during difficult situations. He also said that running for those positions made him well-known throughout St. Louis County, which contains one of the largest bloc of Black voters in the state.

“Because we know in Missouri, we have got to expand our electorate. Period,” Bell said. “And don't tell me we can't do it. Because if Georgia can do it, absolutely we can do it here in Missouri.”

Neither Bell nor May feel that their presence in the race will split the Black vote and make it more likely that Kunce will win.

“We're going to make our case to every corner of the state, and voters will decide,” Bell said.

May said: “This is about a person who's able to go to Washington, D.C., and work with the individuals there to get the job done. And we must heal this nation. And we need people in that environment that have the ability to influence that healing.”

St. Louis Recorder of Deeds Michael Butler said he expects robust support for May, whom he dubbed “the godmother of St. Louis City Black politics.”

“Karla is absolutely the most experienced person in the race, having been successful in Jefferson City for over a decade,” Butler said. “She’s just a fighter. She is a big fighter.”

Missouri politician Josh Hawley speaks to reporters. The scene is photographed from a worm's eye view.
Tristen Rouse
St. Louis Public Radio
U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., answers questions from reporters on Aug. 17 at the Governor's Ham Breakfast during the Missouri State Fair in Sedalia.

Cracking the geographic riddle

Hawley has the most money to spend going into 2024, between his campaign committee and a political action committee. But he’s said multiple times throughout the year he expects his reelection campaign to be expensive, especially if Democratic donors give prodigiously to their nominee.

“We'll just have to counter that with the force of our record and our ideas,” Hawley said earlier this year at Missouri Republican Party Lincoln Days. “And I think we will prevail.”

Hawley predicted that his campaign would get a boost from the fact that he’s running during a presidential election. Missouri has voted for the Republican presidential nominee since 2000, including by double-digit margins when former President Donald Trump was at the top of the ticket.

“I think people are going to be extremely motivated to get out and send Joe Biden out of office,” Hawley said.

Hawley and other Republican statewide officials have won decisively since 2016 thanks to their dominance in rural counties and their growing margins of support in fast-growing suburbs like St. Charles and Jefferson counties.

Mike Jones, a former public official in St. Louis and St. Louis County, said a key question ahead for Missouri Democrats is whether a deluge of money can change the geographical reality in the state.

He added that one of the rationales for spending money in Missouri is “getting back to trying to be a party that has a base all over the country so you’re running and competing.”

“Money in politics can make a difference,” Jones said. “But by and large, you having money is like having a lot of money in a poker game with professional gamblers. If your money holds, your luck is not going to change. Because the game is structured in a way that you’re not going to win. You can spend a lot of money, but you’re not going to change the outcome.”

Clemens said he’s been seeing signs that rural voters are more receptive to Democratic candidates.

“I think that race is going to be more important than national observers think,” said Clemens. “Missouri is in the process of changing. I go out and volunteer to speak with rural Missouri as a Democrat, and I speak to full rooms of 120-plus people.

“Missouri is looking for a change,” he added. “Now whether the Democratic Party is able to meet that change is another question — and that’s really up to the people.”

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