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Missouri Democrats hope to recover from their crippling losses at the polls

Stunned by the magnitude of their Election Day losses, Missouri’s Democratic leaders are taking stock as they seek to regroup.

U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., says she’s in the midst of “a listening tour’’ to gauge where she and other party activists went wrong, and what needs to be done. But McCaskill emphasized in an interview that she doesn’t buy into the narrative that Missouri Democrats were punished at the polls for ignoring rural voters and working-class whites.

Missouri’s statewide Democratic candidates may have lost on Nov. 8, but they fared far better than their presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton, because most had campaigned all over the state, the senator said.

Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster, the party’s nominee for governor, “probably spent more time in (livestock) sale barns than he spent in Clayton,” McCaskill quipped.

Gubernatorial candidate Chris Koster became the first Democrat endorsed by the Missouri Farm Bureau for a statewide office.
Credit File Photo | Marshall Griffin | St. Louis Public Radio
Gubernatorial candidate Chris Koster became the first Democrat endorsed by the Missouri Farm Bureau for a statewide office.

Missouri Democrats fell victim, she said, to "a doozy'' of a wave election produced by rank-and-file GOP support for Donald Trump, who carried the state by almost 20 percentage points and is now the president-elect.

But state Democratic Party chairman Roy Temple says his party's focus needs to be less on the past and more on the future.

“There’s clearly adjustments we need to make,” Temple said. “There’s no doubt that regardless of the fact that we have better ideas for how to help the working class, they haven’t heard what we’ve been saying. So we have to be more effective at communicating that we’re the better option.”

Temple, a political consultant, may step down on Dec. 3, when Democratic state committee members from around the state gather to consider what to do next.  (State Republican Party chairman John Hancock is leaving his post as well, in January, in part to allow Gov.-elect Eric Greitens to choose his own GOP party leader.)

Democrats told to forge ahead

Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander, who narrowly lost his bid for the U.S. Senate to Republican incumbent Roy Blunt, has made several public statements over the past two weeks aimed at encouraging Democrats to politically fight back.

“Pick yourself up. Dust yourself off. Yes, Donald Trump is going to be President and the Republicans control the House and the Senate, but I need that to double your resolve, not cause you to give up on our politics,” wrote Kander in a letter posted on his web site.

Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, D-St. Louis, says the party needs to give people a reason to be excited for its candidates.
Credit File Photo | Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio
Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, D-St. Louis, says the party needs to give people a reason to be excited for its candidates.

State Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, D-St. Louis, says she’s all for self-examination. But she adds that state Democrats also must do a better job of energizing their urban base. “You have to give them something to be excited about.”

Nasheed, who is mulling a bid for St. Louis mayor, said Democrats cannot “continue to take people for granted thinking that they’re going to just come out and vote for you because they’re going to vote Democrat.”

“When you have African-Americans going out knocking on doors saying ‘Hey, we have to get out to vote and this is the message.’ That’s synergy and it’s energy. And we just didn’t have that.”

Nasheed contended that Koster and other statewide Democrats failed to focus enough on organizing a field operation in African-American neighborhoods, even though they were relying on a strong turnout.

Democratic turnout in the cities of St. Louis and Kansas City, and St. Louis County, ended up producing 50,000 fewer votes than in 2012.

Legislative Democrats split over how to improve their lot

State Sen-elect John Rizzo, D-Kansas City,  said Democratic candidates need to recognize, and figure out how to deal with, voter disgust at politicians and the political system.

“I knocked on over 10,000 doors. Just thousands and thousands of doors. And people were angry. They were absolutely angry,” Rizzo said. “And they put that anger into the system – (against) politicians who had been elected before. And that’s where they chose to take their frustrations out on.”

Missouri Democrats also have yet to counter their demise in rural parts of the state that had once been strongly Democratic. The 1980s saw the disappearance of legislative Democrats in southeast Missouri. Since then, Republicans have swept away rural Democrats in central and northeast Missouri. 

Those losses have put Democrats in the solid minority in both the state House and Senate, where Republicans now have veto-proof majorities.

Still, new House Minority Leader Gail McCann Beatty, D-Kansas City, said that fellow Democrats need to “continue to do what we’re doing.”

She pointed to how House Democrats technically gained a seat when Democrat Jay Mosley ousted independent state Rep. Keith English in St. Louis County.

“I think we continue to get our message out there,” Beatty said. “Because I still think our message resonates with people. And we need to continue to do that. We will simply be working on getting quality candidates.”

Recruitment could be another challenge. In 2016, dozens of GOP incumbents in the Missouri General Assembly faced no Democratic opposition – even in places that had previously elected Democrats.  

“It’s past time. We have to figure out what we’re doing wrong,” said Senate Minority Leader Gina Walsh, D-Bellefontaine Neighbors. “And I don’t know. I’m a Democrat. Maybe I can’t see what we’re doing wrong, because I am a Democrat.”

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Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.
Since entering the world of professional journalism in 2006, Jason Rosenbaum dove head first into the world of politics, policy and even rock and roll music. A graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism, Rosenbaum spent more than four years in the Missouri State Capitol writing for the Columbia Daily Tribune, Missouri Lawyers Media and the St. Louis Beacon. Since moving to St. Louis in 2010, Rosenbaum's work appeared in Missouri Lawyers Media, the St. Louis Business Journal and the Riverfront Times' music section. He also served on staff at the St. Louis Beacon as a politics reporter. Rosenbaum lives in Richmond Heights with with his wife Lauren and their two sons.
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