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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.

For Election Junkies, 2014 Is A Great, Big Bust

Marshall Griffin/St. Louis Public Radio

For all intents and purposes, the 2014 election season looks to be a great, big bust.

Nobody should be surprised, as 2014 was always a way station to 2016. But hardly anybody expected that the only statewide race on the ballot would feature state Auditor Tom Schweich facing off against a Libertarian or Constitution Party candidate -- but not even a token Democrat. And some previously heated state Senate contests completely fizzled out.

Even by the standards of mid-term elections, this cycle is decidedly lacking. In 2010, about 551 candidates signed up to run for federal, state legislative and judicial elections. That number decreased to 429 this year, representing a significant drop in candidate participation.

But even without a marquee state auditor match-up (if such a thing ever existed), there are still electoral contests worth watching. It just requires some digging. Here are some preliminary takeaways from the end of candidate filing:

Biggest winner: State Auditor Tom Schweich

photo of Thomas Schweich
Credit Provided by the auditor's office
State Auditor Tom Schweich is the only statewide official on the ballot this year. And no Democrat filed to run against him, giving him a big political boost going into 2016.

To say that Schweich’s electoral path got easier is an understatement. The Clayton native had to fend off a credible Republican primary opponent and an incumbent state auditor in 2010. Flash forward to November, and all that stands between Schweich and a second term are a pair of minor-party candidates.

That’s not a misprint. Even though four longshot Democratic candidates are seeking to unseat U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Kansas City, not a single Democrat filed against Schweich. That’s a bit of a surprise, especially since most political watchers – including this writer – expected the Democrats at least to run a sacrificial lamb against him.

Giving Schweich a pass is decidedly risky. Not only can he conserve his war chest for 2016, but he is now free to help out other candidates this year. While he’ll have competition from former U.S. attorney and House Speaker Catherine Hanaway if he runs for governor in two years, right now it looks like clear sailing.

Bigger losers: St. Louis voters

Unlike 2012’s unusually spirited primary season, it’s hard to find many races for city offices that are terribly competitive. Most incumbents for state and local offices are heavily favored, and there aren’t many open seats.

Without statewide races to drive Democrats to the polls, the city's turnout could be pretty darn low this fall. And that may affect ballot initiatives, which may play an increasingly prominent role this cycle.

There are some diamonds in the rough, though, such as the 76th District contest between state Rep. Joshua Peters, D-St. Louis, and Chris Carter, Sr. Peters will have significant backing from U.S. Rep. Lacy Clay, D-St. Louis, and key House Democrats. But Carter – the son of former state Sen. Paula Carter and the father of Alderman Chris Carter, D-27th Ward – will have significant name recognition.

Biggest bust: Formerly competitive state Senate races 

Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal
Credit Missouri Senate
With stout fundraising and a bridge-building mentality, Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, D-University City, is unopposed for a second term in the Missouri Senate.

In the absence of a competitive statewide auditor’s race, it would stand to reason that state Senate contests would pick up the slack. Wrong. Some senators who won in 2010 by a whisker – such as Sens. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, D-University City, and Will Kraus, R-Lee’s Summit – face no opposition this year. Of the 11 senators running for re-election, 10 are heavily favored to win a second term.

It’s even quiet in usually politically raucous northeast Missouri, as Sen. Brian Munzlinger, R-Williamstown, also got a free pass to a second term to represent the 18th District. To put things in perspective, Democrat Joe Maxwell prevailed in Munzlinger’s district with 72 percent of the vote in 1998. Democratic fortunes have declined precipitously since that point in time, especially after redistricting made the 18th District more Republican.

Most surprisingly active races: County positions 

Credit Jason Rosenbaum, St. Louis Beacon.
Sen. Brian Nieves, R-Washington, is leaving the Missouri Senate and running for Franklin County Recorder of Deeds.

For all the languor on a statewide and state legislative level, it’s downright pandemonium for county-level offices.

Whether it’s St. Louis County executive, St. Louis license collector, St. Charles County election director or Franklin County recorder of deeds, county offices are highly competitive this year. It probably helps that some of the positions carry more executive power – and higher salaries – than typical state legislative or municipal offices.

Of course, competitiveness doesn’t necessarily mean that voters will be engaged. After all, how psyched can county residents conceivably be over a recorder of deeds primary?

Most competitive Democratic primary: St. Louis County Executive 

Credit Chris McDaniel, St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley will face the fight of his political life this summer -- and, if he makes it through the primary, this fall.

The impending skirmish between St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley and Councilman Steve Stenger, D-Affton, has all the trappings of a statewide contest. Both competitors will have money and endorsements in the race for one of the most powerful local offices in the state.

But St. Louis County Assessor Jake Zimmerman may have been prophetic when he warned that Stenger and Dooley shouldn’t overlook the general election. That’s because House Budget Chairman Rick Stream, R-Kirkwood, jumped into the race, and he may have the temperament and campaign experience to give either Democrat a run in November. (Assuming, of course, he can win the GOP primary against Green Park Alderman Tony Pousosa and Ellisville Councilman Matt Pirrello.)

Stream may also have an advantage if the winner of the Democratic primary is broke after August – placing a new wrinkle on an already volatile contest.

Most competitive Republican primary: 2nd senatorial district in St. Charles County 

(l-r) State Senator Scott Rupp (R, Wentzville) and State Rep. John Diehl (R, Town and Country), at the start of a long night of failed negotiations.
Credit Marshall Griffin, St. Louis Public Radio
The battle for former Sen. Scott Rupp's (right) seat is perhaps the state's top GOP primary.

This battle for Sen. Scott Rupp’s (now vacant) seat  wins by default. It may have had competition had House Speaker Tim Jones, R-Eureka, or former Sen. Jane Cunningham, R-Chesterfield, decided to run for the 26th District Senate seat. But both declined, making the three-way race for the St.  Charles County-based seat a slugfest.

Three Republicans – state Rep. Chuck Gatschenberger, R-Lake Saint Louis, former state Rep. Bob Onder, R-Lake Saint Louis, and former Rep. Vicki Schneider, R-O’Fallon – are vying to represent the fast-growing state Senate district. And every indication shows that the race will be highly competitive – and contentious.

Both Onder and Gatschenberger have poured their own money into the contest. And there’s a bit of bad blood between the two, especially since they ran against each other for a state House seat in 2006. (Onder won easily.) Schneider is a wildcard in the contest and has received donations from organized labor – an increasingly potent force in St. Charles County.

It should be noted that St. Louis County and St. Charles County will have plenty of House races in which the winner of the primary will go to Jefferson City in the fall. But since individual members of the Senate hold significant power over the course of legislation, the 2nd District contest takes the prize.

Most competitive general election: 22nd Senatorial District in Jefferson County

This will be a test of how much Jefferson County has changed politically in the last decade. It used to be Democratic territory. Democrat Ryan McKenna, D-Crystal City, won election in 2006 with over 60 percent of the vote. And Jefferson County’s House delegation was dominated by Democrats.

Now, the battle between Rep. Jeff Roorda, D-Barnhart, and Rep. Paul Wieland, R-Imperial, could be  a toss-up. And pretty much every race for a Jefferson County House seat will be competitive, which could sway the outcome in November.

While the race between Roorda and Wieland is interesting for political junkies, it won't much affect how the Senate operates. Both men are considered pro-labor, anti-abortion and pro-gun. And a Republican win won’t change whether the GOP has a veto-proof majority in the Senate. It could be argued that the race between Sen. Rob Schaaf, R-St. Joseph, and Democrat Robert Stuber is far more important, given that Schaaf is considered a major figure in formulating state health-care policy.  

But Schaaf has never lost an election and has usually won by comfortable margins, leaving the “Battle For JeffCo” on top. If Republicans win here, Democrats may have some work to do to shore up strength in the swing county – especially with crucial statewide offices up for grabs.

On the Trail, a weekly column, weaves together the intriguing threads from the world of Missouri politics.

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