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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.

At Democrat Days, party leaders home in on GOP rivals, Trump tariffs and a critical election

Missouri Democratic Party Chairman Stephen Webber was the keynote speaker at the 2018 Democrat Days in Hannibal.
File photo | Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio
Missouri Democratic Party Chairman Stephen Webber was the keynote speaker at the 2018 Democrat Days in Hannibal.

After stepping to the lectern for his keynote address Saturday night, Missouri Democratic Party Chairman Stephen Webber recounted his pitch from last year’s Democrat Days in Hannibal. After his party’s disastrous 2016 election cycle, Webber told his fellow Democrats that they had a “moral obligation” to oppose President Donald Trump.

This year, Webber placed an amendment on that comment. He told the packed banquet hall that Democrats “have a moral obligation to stand up and oppose what Gov. Eric Greitens is doing here in Missouri.”

“He’s brought shame to Republicans in the state, and he’s a stain on our politics,” Webber said during his speech. “And if the Republican Party doesn’t have the moral courage to stand up and point out the obvious, then the Democratic Party will.”

As noted earlier, attendees at Democrat Days were somewhat divided about what should happen to Greitens after he admitted to an extramarital affair before he was governor. Some want him to stay in office, primarily because his political woes could be used to help Democratic candidates. Others feel both his admission of an affair and his indictment on invasion of privacy charges are disqualifying.

Webber didn’t specifically mention in his speech whether Greitens should resign. Asked after his speech, Webber said: “I don’t think he should have ever been governor. And I’ve made it pretty clear that if he was gone a while ago, that would be a good thing.”

“It’s on the Republican Party,” Webber said. “Democrats are in the superminority. We’ve spoken out about his actions. The Republican Party’s continued to back him. That’s not hyperbole. They’ve put out press releases defending him. And so, we’ve called on him to end his governorship and we’ve called on him to leave and we’ve called for investigations. We’ve done all those things. At the end of the day, it’s up to the Republican Party to take care of him. He’s their governor.”

Greitens and Webber weren’t always on such adversarial terms. When Webber announced his bid for state representative in 2008, Greitens, then a Democrat, showed up at his kickoff event in Columbia.

Taking stock of a hypothetical Gov. Parson

Republican Lt. Gov. Mike Parson would become governor if Eric Greitens left office.
Credit File photo I Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Republican Lt. Gov. Mike Parson would become governor if Eric Greitens left office.

If Greitens does leave office, Lt. Gov. Mike Parson would take his place. Some Democrat Days attendees were hesitant to call for Greitens to leave, because they fear the Bolivar Republican would be more effective at implementing legislation that’s detrimental to the party.

Others, like Mark Dalton of the St. Louis-Kansas City Regional Council, isn’t so sure Parson would be worse than Greitens — at least on labor-related issues. He described Parson as “level-headed,” adding that he’s uncertain whether he’d advocate for substantially curbing organized labor’s power if he becomes governor.

“A scandal-laden governor can still sign bad bills,” Dalton said.

Webber, who served with Parson in the Missouri House, said he doesn’t know whether Democrats should fear Parson. He pointed to a situation after the 2012 election cycle where Missouri Republican senators chose Ron Richard to be the chamber’s majority leader instead of Parson.

“The Republican legislators thought so little of him that they ambushed him and took a job away from him that he thought that he had,” Webber said. “I think that his ability to unify Republicans is a little overrated.”

At the time, some of Parson’s Republican colleagues expressed concern that he was too close to former House Speaker Steve Tilley — a lobbyist who was widely seen as one of the state’s shrewdest political strategists.

Senatorial agreement

Trump greets guests before delivering his remarks in St. Charles.
Credit File I Bill Greenblatt I UPI
President Donald Trump's steel and aluminum tariffs drew bipartisan scorn from Missouri's two U.S. Senators.

As mentioned above, much of Democrat Days featured sharp denunciations of the state’s Republican Party. But in at least one instance, U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill agreed with Republican U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt.

McCaskill used part of her Saturday brunch speech to rip President Donald Trump’s tariffs on steel and aluminum. She used almost identical argumentsthat Blunt conveyed to reporters on Friday: the tariffs actually affect allies, such as Canada, more than adversaries — and that they could prompt retaliation against products vital to Missouri’s economy.

“I think it’s going to be brutal for Missouri agriculture,” McCaskill said. “Canada is the number-one country for the steel that we import. It’s the number-one country for the aluminum we import. So the president’s declared a trade war against Canada, which is our most reliable important trading partner for agriculture. So this is not going to be good. We’ve got to figure out a way to stop this before it really dramatically hurts everybody in northeast Missouri that is growing beans and corn.”

One of McCaskill’s GOP rivals for re-election, Attorney General Josh Hawley, said in a statement to St. Louis Public Radio that “trade is good for Missouri workers and farmers when our trade partners follow the same rules we do.”

“Most of our trade partners do.  But one in particular doesn’t: China,” Hawley said. “China systematically abuses the global trade system and we should respond firmly to defend American workers.”

Trump has contended that the move will protect America’s steel and aluminum industries. In a tweet from last week, the president stated in all caps: “IF YOU DON’T HAVE STEEL, YOU DON’T HAVE A COUNTRY.”

When you were young

U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill poses for a photo on Saturday, March 3, 2018, at Democrat Days in Hannibal. McCaskill said she was excited to see so many young people at the event.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio
U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill poses for a photo on Saturday, March 3, 2018, at Democrat Days in Hannibal. McCaskill said she was excited to see so many young people at the event.

Most of McCaskill’s Saturday speech highlighted the shortcomings of Trump and Hawley. But McCaskill also made a point to note the presence of dozens of young people who showed up at Democrat Days. College students from all parts of the state made the trip to Hannibal.

“I worried about Democratic Days, because I worry that the audience seemed to skew older,” McCaskill said. “I want to tell you: you’ve put a spring in my step this morning for all these young people that are here today.”

To win a third term next year, McCaskill will need to hold down Republican margins in rural parts of the state — including places that used to be Democratic-leaning like Hannibal. One of the theories to why Democrats lost a foothold in northeast Missouri is that younger residents tend to identify with Republicans. And the region’s older residents with longstanding Democratic ties are dying.

Chade Shorten, a senior at Truman State University and president of the Young Democrats of Missouri, told audience members on Sunday that her group hopes to energize youthful voters this fall.

“It is crucial that we work together to create a stronger network of Young Dems in every corner of Missouri,” she said. “From Kansas City to St. Louis, from our northern border in Greentop to our southern border in West Plains, we have got to let young people know there is a party for them.”

In the wings?

Democrat Days co-founder John Yancey walks into a brunch event at Democrat Days in Hannibal.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio
Democrat Days co-founder John Yancey walks into a brunch event at Democrat Days in Hannibal.

Even if McCaskill and state auditor Nicole Galloway win their highly competitive elections this year, Missouri Democrats still have a long way to go before accumulating significant power. And without electoral improvement in rural Missouri, the party will likely remain greatly outnumbered in the Missouri General Assembly for years to come.

The other issue the Democrats face is they don’t have an obvious candidate to run for governor in 2020. Jay Nixon effectively started his 2008 gubernatorial bid in 2005, while Chris Koster began his ultimately unsuccessful 2016 run in 2013. (Both Koster and Nixon likely started earlier to fend off Democratic competition.)

Webber, though, emphasized that Democrats need to focus on bettering themselves during the 2018 election cycle — as opposed to looking ahead to 2020.

“I’m laser-focused on 2018,” Webber said. “I don’t think you see people talking about that as much, because they understand how important 2018 is. With Claire McCaskill, with Nicole Galloway, with these ballot initiatives; with trying to break the supermajority in those chambers, we’re at a point where we have to put every ounce of energy in our bodies to 2018.

“As a result of that, anybody who wants to be a leader in this state or in this party better be focusing their energy on that,” he added.

Democrats do have some possibilities for 2020. That includes current statewide officeholders (like Galloway), past elected leaders (former Secretary of State Jason Kander or Treasurer Clint Zweifel), local officials (Kansas City Mayor Sly James or St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger) or state lawmakers (state Sen. Scott Sifton of Affton). Depending on how 2018 goes, that list could also include party leaders like Webber.

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

Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum

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