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For Missouri Senate candidate Shorter, challenging Luetkemeyer is a third job to juggle

A woman wearing a gray coat poses outdoors. Behind her is part of a parking lot and a stand of trees.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Sarah Shorter is running as a Democrat to represent Missouri's 34th state senate district, which includes Platte County.

Sarah Shorter is the Democratic candidate for Missouri's 34th state senate district. But working two jobs and running against an incumbent in a Republican district makes it difficult to get a message out.

Sitting in a private room at the Green Hills branch of the Mid-Continent Public Library, with bags under their eyes, Sarah Shorter is tired.

Shorter works the overnight shift at the local hospital, where their shifts have been busier than usual. They have a second job, too, as an access specialist at this Mid-Continent Public Library.

Their third job: running for office.

“I work on my campaign in between everything,” Shorter says. “When I get to the hospital a little bit early, I will sit in my car for a few minutes and I will edit a TikTok or I will post some tweets or I'll check my emails and write emails back.”

Shorter, a Democrat, is a first-time political candidate running to represent Missouri’s 34th senate district, which spans the northernmost parts of Kansas City and Parkville up to St. Joseph in Platte and Buchanan counties. It’s home to nearly 200,000 people and is predominantly white and suburban.

Shorter is running against one-term incumbent Sen. Tony Luetkemeyer, a Republican originally from Farmington, a small town in southeast Missouri. He’s an attorney who once clerked for a Missouri Supreme Court judge and later practiced at Shook, Hardy & Bacon, one of Kansas City’s largest law firms. He has served in the Missouri Senate since 2018 as Senate Majority Whip.

Statehouse races are often overlooked as less important than races higher up on the ballot, and mid-term elections typically see lower turnout than in presidential election years. But this Missouri Senate race, in particular, illustrates some of the reasons it’s hard to recruit people to run for office and how heightened partisanship has affected the ability of first-time candidates to succeed.

As a political newcomer, Shorter is facing a wall of obstacles. With two jobs, they have little or no time to campaign or knock on doors. They have no staff and little funding. Reaching voters with their campaign message — such as support for teachers and better mental health services — has become almost impossible.

“Most of my campaign is digital simply because my schedule does not work out for a lot of in-person stuff,” Shorter says. “I have several physical health issues that definitely impede physical in-person campaigning.”

Money — and a lack of it — has also hampered Shorter’s efforts. According to campaign filings this year, Shorter has raised nearly $7,000. In contrast, Luetkemeyer has raised close to $400,000 this year, with most of it coming from political action committees.

“It's very clear that money does win campaigns,” Shorter says. “If I had money I would've hired a campaign manager and I would've just been like, ‘I don't know how to do any of this stuff. I'm gonna hire people to do it for me.’ And I did not have that luxury.”

Then there’s the power of incumbency.

Luetkemeyer’s most recent claim to fame is passing a measure to increase the amount of Kansas City’s budget that goes to the police department. Amendment 4 will be on the Nov. 8 ballot. It’s been hotly debated as part of a larger issue about funding and how city resources are dispatched. Luetkemeyer argues the legislation is necessary to prevent attempts from city officials to “defund” the police.

“The last time (the) statute that established the minimum funding amount for the KCPD was updated was 1958,” Luetkemeyer told KCUR’s Kansas City Today podcast in March. “And obviously, inflation has gone up by, well, in excess of 5%, which is what my legislation does. It increases the KCPD’s minimum funding obligation from this city, from 20% to 25%.”

Repeated attempts to reach Sen. Luetkemeyer for this story were unsuccessful.

Shorter's other obstacle is the historically Republican district. A Democrat hasn’t held this seat since 1998.

Running for the Missouri Senate was not Shorter’s first choice. They were originally interested in running for a seat on the Platte County Commission, which appoints four people to the board of the Mid-Continent Public Library. But there was already a Democrat in that race.

The Platte County Democrats said the 34th District Senate seat needed a Democrat to challenge Luetkemeyer. Shorter volunteered.

Shorter was born in Oklahoma and then moved to Kansas City as a child, where they attended private religious schools. They received their degree in Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies from the University of Kansas in 2020. Before working at the hospital and the library, Shorter spent time working at the Kansas City Zoo.

Shorter grew up conservative, which they believe is an advantage when talking with residents who also lean right. When they look at the 34th Senate district, they see a reflection of Midwestern values.

“I realized that the values that I see in the community are Midwestern values,” Shorter says. “I thought that was just one of the weirdest things I'd ever thought. But it's about welcoming people in and taking care of them if they need to be taken care of and creating a family even if you aren't near your family or they don't wanna be near you.”

Shorter doesn’t identify as a politician, but as a “regular person” who is involved in politics. They’ve taken inspiration not from other politicians, but from queer and transgender activists like Marhsa P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera and Angie Xtravaganza.

“I belong to several demographics that mean my existence is political,” Shorter says. “But I'm not a politician.”

Then why run? Shorter says it was to make sure a Democrat faced the Republican incumbent in November. In the August primary, 41 Republican incumbents ran without any opposition in races for the Missouri General Assembly, about 23% of the state’s legislative races. Out of the 180 Missouri Statehouse races in 2020, 83 were uncontested.

“If you're a party and you want candidates, that's a real struggle to get people to run in races where they have almost no chance,” says Patrick Miller, a political science professor at the University of Kansas. “Why would you sign up to go through something where winning is hopeless?”

Miller says the redistricting process, which takes place every 10 years following the Census, gives political parties the ability to draw districts they can safely win. Partisanship is not supposed to guide redistricting — the process is supposed to take into account population and demographic changes with the goal of providing equal political representation.

But Miller says the goal for political parties is to draw as many safe seats as possible.

“We have an increasing number of uncontested elections in the United States, especially for state legislatures,” Miller says. “And then even if they're contested, a lot of those candidates have very little chance of winning, just because of how those districts are drawn.”

Signs supporting Democrats running for office are plastered on the windows and walls of the Platte County Democrats office in Kansas City's Northland.
Celisa Calacal
KCUR 89.3
Signs supporting Democrats running for office are plastered on the windows and walls of the Platte County Democrats office in Kansas City's Northland.

But David Christian, a retiree and volunteer with the Platte County Democrats, says he worries widespread voter apathy, coupled with a lack of funding and party support for Democrats, will continue to discourage potential candidates.

To Christian, one of the problems is that many people who can vote just choose not to.

“Of course that makes it hard for us to even recruit candidates because they look at the fact that it's very difficult for a Democrat to win,” he says of Platte County.

Shorter says they know the odds are stacked against them.

“I'll be like, ‘You're gonna lose. Just go to bed or just play a dumb game or just watch that episode of John Stewart, watch Ghost Files.' And then I will not be able to do that,” Shorter says.

But their hope is that maybe their life experiences — being a queer, working-class person holding down two jobs — will resonate with people, perhaps inspire others to get involved, maybe even jump into a future race themselves.

“I don't want people to see that — the candidate's not trying — because then it's like, ‘Well, then why should I care?' So there's a lot of reasons why I don't just give up.”

As KCUR’s Missouri politics and government reporter, it’s my job to show how government touches every aspect of our lives. I break down political jargon so people can easily understand policies and how it affects them. My work is people-forward and centered on civic engagement and democracy. I hold political leaders and public officials accountable for the decisions they make and their impact on our communities. Follow me on Twitter @celisa_mia or email me at celisa@kcur.org.
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