Missouri Republicans have created a lot of problems for themselves. In May, House Speaker John Diehl was forced to resign for exchanging innuendo-laden texts with a college intern. Diehl was the third GOP speaker to step down over the past decade under an ethical cloud. The last Republican governor, Matt Blunt, suddenly pulled the plug on his re-election bid back in 2008 amid rumors about his personal life. During the next cycle, Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder canceled his bid for governor due to his one-time “romantic attraction” to a stripper. Then there’s Todd Akin, the former congressman whose Senate campaign imploded over his comments about “legitimate rape."
These events are emblematic of a larger dynamic: Republicans just can’t seem to consolidate power in the state. Missouri hasn’t supported a Democrat for president since Bill Clinton. Republicans have big supermajorities in both the legislature and the state’s congressional delegation. But time and again, Missouri Republicans haven’t looked quite ready for prime time.
Poor performance by both politicians and party officials helps explain why Democrats control six of the eight statewide offices. The GOP’s problems leading up to next year’s gubernatorial election have already made national news, given the suicides of Auditor Tom Schweich and a top aide. Even before their deaths, it was clear that Republicans would be heavily divided amongst themselves heading into the race.
In a sense, there’s nothing new about this. Missouri Republicans have been badly factionalized at least since a brutal primary race for governor back in 1992. They hold veto-proof majorities in the legislature, but Diehl’s sexting scandal and earlier complaints about lobbyists’ gifts this year led editorial writers to complain about a “culture of entitlement in Jefferson City.”
With the Democratic vote heavily concentrated in major cities and college towns, most GOP legislators don’t have to give any thought to broadening their appeal. “Missouri Democrats who have won statewide have all been better at appealing to rural and suburban voters than their GOP counterparts have been with urban voters,” says Peverill Squire, a political scientist at the University of Missouri. “Heavy GOP control of the General Assembly has made a lot of Republicans forget how many Democratic voters are packed into St. Louis and Kansas City.”
Democratic Attorney General Chris Koster is now the early favorite to succeed Gov. Jay Nixon next year. Unlike Democrats in most other states, he will have the advantage of running for governor in a presidential year, when turnout will be higher.
Koster is a former Republican. The fact that he saw a more profitable future as a Democrat speaks volumes about Missouri politics. In an era when so many other states have gone red, Missouri remains stubbornly purple. “Republicans have power in the state legislature,” says Saint Louis University political scientist Kenneth Warren, “but that’s the only place they have any power.”