Dems Feeling Special in Missouri

After decades in the wilderness, Republicans have been having a high old time running things as the dominant party in Missouri. They took control of ...
by | April 5, 2006

Donkey After decades in the wilderness, Republicans have been having a high old time running things as the dominant party in Missouri. They took control of both chambers of the legislature in 2002, and Matt Blunt, son of a Republican congressional leader, won the governorship for the party in 2004. He's pursued an aggressive agenda.

Is there starting to be a backlash against that agenda -- and Republican control? On the face of things, it doesn't look likely. Republicans have a 31-seat lead in the state House, and control the Senate by a 2-to-1 margin (23 seats, compared with 11 for the Democrats).

But Democrats have found some daylight in recent months in special legislative contests. They have taken control of a couple of Republican seats -- reflecting a nationwide trend of Democratic success in special elections since 2004.

Democrats have been sweeping specials -- winning nine out of the 10 contests that resulted in a party switch since December. They've been enjoying rare success not only in Missouri but other primarily red states such as Texas, Virginia and Kentucky.

Kirkwood, a western suburb of St. Louis, is so reliably Republican that President Bush made it his first stop in Missouri after taking office, and the GOP leader in the state Senate hails from there. Yet since November, the area House seat has been held by a Democrat, Jane Bogetto.

Bogetto says that anti-Republican anger indeed did help her, specifically voter concern about the $230 million worth of Medicaid cuts imposed by Blunt (which, along with the federal match, amounts to a cut of nearly $600 million in health spending).

Charles Dake, a Democrat who won a previously Republican House seat in a special election in February, also attributes his victory to the Medicaid cuts. "We were running strictly on the senior issues, the cuts they made," he says. "I had an awful lot of Republicans vote for me."

Dake now represents a district in southwestern Missouri, which has been particularly rocky for Democrats. "You got to get clear to Springfield before you get another Democrat," he says -- more than 30 miles away.

There are two ways of looking at the fact that Democrats have managed to elect a second representative from the most Republican corner of the state. One is that they are showing unusual strength in difficult territory. The other is that they still only have two seats.

It's clear that a few special elections don't add up to a majority. But they might signal a change in momentum. And, outside of safe chambers like the Missouri House, that could mean a big difference come November. After all, 17 state Senates nationwide are within three seats of changing hands, while 12 state Houses are within five seats.

So a Democratic tide could help them regain their historic lead in state legislative seats. They squandered a 50-year lead in state legislative seats in 2002, but pulled back into a tie in 2004. Since then, they've squeaked into a small -- and meaningless -- lead in the total number of legislative seats. (Republicans control two more chambers.)

Alex Johnson, of the Republican Legislative Campaign Committee, says it's "hats off" to the Democrats for their special election successes. Although he doesn't believe this portends big losses for his party, he does concede that, for the moment at least, Democrats do have some momentum.

"I think the lesson here is that, maybe in some years Republicans don't have to work hard, knock on doors and raise money," Johnson says. "This year, they do."

More on all this in Governing's May issue.