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Missouri House GOP changes campaign leader amid row with Senate

House Majority Leader Jon Patterson, R-Lee's Summit, speaks at a press conference after voting against a bill seeking to ban gender-affirming care for minors.
Annelise Hanshaw
Missouri Independent
House Majority Leader Jon Patterson, R-Lee's Summit, speaks in a press conference after voting against a bill seeking to ban gender-affirming care for minors.

Missouri lawmakers return this week to Jefferson City for their annual session with a new fight brewing between House and Senate Republicans that may have hastened a change in duties for long-time House GOP political strategist Jonathan Ratliff.

Ratliff, who leveraged his success building a legislative supermajority into a political consulting firm with a variety of clients, will be replaced as executive director of the House Republican Campaign Committee. Ratliff will be retained as a “senior consultant,” Majority Floor Leader Jon Patterson said in a statement issued Friday.

In the statement, Patterson praised Ratliff for his performance, noting he had helped the committee, known as the HRCC, raise over $20 million and bring in 569 Republican victories in 14 years.

The announcement came a week after the committee filed a brief with the Missouri Supreme Court in a lawsuit seeking changes to the state Senate district map. The filing prompted an urgent call from Senate Majority Leader Cindy O’Laughlin to Patterson asking why House Republicans wanted changes in a map that is acceptable to Senate Republicans.

O’Laughlin said she thinks Ratliff used the HRCC to take a stand that benefits some of his consulting clients.

“I think this is about outside interests,” O’Laughlin said. “He would rather see a Senate map different than it is right now.”

In an interview, Ratliff declined to address O’Laughlin’s criticism. He said his goal over the past year has been to prepare for a transition at HRCC.

“I am proud to have spent the last 14 years of my life working for HRCC building our record majorities and I look forward to helping the next generation of HRCC leaders continue our legacy of two decades in the majority as a senior advisor,” Ratliff said.

The departure of Ratliff after 14 years with the HRCC was already in the works, Patterson said in an interview. The timing soon after the amicus, or “friend of the court,” brief that upset O’Laughlin was coincidental, he said.

“This is something that had been in the works for a while now,” Patterson said. “And it preceded the amicus brief and really had nothing to do with that.”

Ratliff has a busy year ahead. His company, Palm Strategic, works for House Speaker Dean Plocher, a candidate for lieutenant governor, and Senate President Pro Tem Caleb Rowden, a candidate for secretary of state, who both face hotly contested Republican primaries.

“The members who are the ones responsible for raising money for HRCC have been very clear this cycle, that they want someone to focus solely on House races, and I’m going to honor that,” Patterson said.

The dispute is one more problem to confound Republicans as they seek to align their fractious supermajorities for an election-year legislative program. The state Senate is riven by divisions that have stalled dozens of bills on the verge of passage during the past three years.

The House begins the year with Speaker Dean Plocher under a cloud as the Ethics Committee investigates his unsuccessful push to award an expensive contract to a company to manages constituent information and a decision to fire his chief of staff. The committee is also looking into Plocher’s reimbursement requests after The Independent reported that on numerous occasions he illegally sought reimbursement for airfare, hotels and other travel costs already paid for by his campaign.

The politics inside each chamber will be contentious. House members will vie with one another in open Senate seats. There are five Republican members of the Senate running for statewide office, with Rowden and state Sen. Denny Hoskins of Warrensburg both in the primary for secretary of state.

At the same time, Democrats are hoping to crack the supermajorities in at least one chamber. The GOP has lost at least one seat in each of the past four elections, including three in the 2022 elections. The GOP has gone from 118 of 163 seats at the start of 2015 to 111 currently.

Palm Strategic has been paid $1.4 million by various campaigns since the start of 2020, according to records of the Missouri Ethics Commission. More than one-third, almost $522,000, was from the HRCC, including a $6,000 monthly payment for Ratliff’s management services.

Other major clients include Missouri Forward, Rowden’s joint fundraising PAC, which has paid Palm Strategic $192,387 in that period, and Uniting Missouri, the PAC supporting Gov. Mike Parson, with $157,534 in payments.

The PAC supporting Plocher, Missouri United, has paid Palm Strategic $30,634 for consulting work this year.

The purpose of each PAC, as well as Democratic counterpart committees, is to provide targeted assistance that support the election of Republicans and not to advance the political interests of any individual member.

There has been growing discontent with Ratliff’s dual roles, said Rep. Don Mayhew, R-Crocker.

“I know that that has been kind of a grumbling, over the years, including from me,” Mayhew said. “I know that was a problem that I had with it – you either do consulting for individual campaigns or you do HRCC. But I think it’s a conflict of interest if you try to do both.”

In the case before the Missouri Supreme Court, voters are challenging the constitutionality of splitting political subdivisions in the creation of district maps. The lawsuit focuses on four districts, challenging the split in Buchanan County between the 12th and 34th Senate districts and the division of Hazelwood in St. Louis County between the 13th and 14th Senate districts.

In September, Cole County Circuit Judge Jon Beetem rejected the challenge and found that the districts were a reasonable result of the process established by the Missouri Constitution.

In the amicus, or “friend of the court,” brief, HRCC attorney Lowell Pearson argued that Beetem incorrectly interpreted the constitution’s directive not to cross political subdivision boundaries.

“Under the state’s constitution, Senate and House districts shall be drawn in a way that follows the borders of cities and counties if it is possible to do so while abiding by other redistricting directives,” Pearson wrote. “This is a clear constitutional imperative.”

If Beetem’s decision is allowed to stand, Pearson wrote, it “might well lead to otherwise unnecessary litigation challenging the House map.”

The Missouri Senate Campaign Committee, the Senate GOP’s counterpart to the HRCC, on Tuesday filed an amicus brief supporting Beetem’s decision. Attorney Ed Greim wrote that the HRCC brief was filed to advance the interests of a few members and not the entire caucus.

The HRCC has no direct interest in the Senate map because it is not responsible for electing Republicans to the Senate, Greim wrote.

“Instead, individual members of the HRCC who aspire to advance to the Senate may have a purely personal interest in tailoring Senate districts in which they hope to run in the future,” Greim wrote.

Greim was contemptuous of the arguments advanced by the HRCC that upholding Beetem’s decision would bring new lawsuits. Beetem found that the constitution permits the commissions that draw legislative district lines to split counties or cities if doing so would make districts more compact and within the tolerance for population differences between districts, Greim wrote.

The HRCC brief argues that there is no allowance for splitting counties or cities with populations small enough to fit in a single district, he wrote.

“The HRCC claims that any contrary reading will prompt endless litigation and even endanger the House map,” Greim wrote. “Hogwash.”

Greim took other swipes at the HRCC in his brief.

“In a surprising twist, the HRCC seeks leave to file an amicus brief in favor of the appellants, individuals aligned with Democratic interests,” Greim wrote. “This strange alignment is worthy of this Court’s attention because it speaks to the interest of each amicus.”

O’Laughlin said she learned about the HRCC brief the day it was filed and asked Patterson to withdraw it.

“I said if (Ratliff) was not going to be running HRCC, I asked them not to file that in the name of HRCC,” O’Laughlin said. “But you know, they wouldn’t and they did it anyway.”

That made stating the Senate Republican position to the court an important step, she said.

“The reason we filed one is to say listen, Republicans are not united in this situation,” O’Laughlin said. “And we certainly did not want the judges who were looking at it to think that this was something that we were all in support of because we are absolutely not supportive.”

Patterson declined to answer if leadership of the HRCC was comfortable with the amicus brief remaining among the filings in the case now that Ratliff was taking a different role.

If the high court overturns Beetem, he would be responsible for issuing an order changing the district boundaries. Because of the need to balance populations, the boundaries of five Senate districts, including two on the 2024 ballot, would change.

The case is on an expedited schedule and all filings are due by Jan. 8. Oral arguments would take place at least a week later.

Chuck Hatfield, attorney for the voters challenging the maps, said he would like the case resolved before filing opens in late February for offices on the August ballot.

The dueling amicus briefs – and the internal GOP divisions they expose – highlight the consequences of the case, Hatfield said.

“It shows that this is a very important matter and it is going to affect redistricting in the future for sure,” Hatfield said. “And it could affect other districts than those involved in this lawsuit.”

This story was originally published by the Missouri Independent, part of the States Newsroom.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpr.org.

Rudi Keller covers the state budget, energy and state legislature as the Deputy Editor at The Missouri Independent.