St. Louis Oracle

St. Louis-based political forecasting plus commentary on politics and events from a grassroots veteran with a mature, progressive anti-establishment perspective.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Examining the ‘Post curse’ in Republican primaries

While the endorsement of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch is a valuable asset in most political contests, there is one venue where the paper’s imprimatur has come to be known as “the kiss of death.” That is in Republican Party primaries.

Most attribute this apparent effect on the general perception that the Post is a “Democrat” paper, a perception well-nurtured by the fact that the overwhelming majority of its endorsements in general elections go to Democrats over Republicans. In contests for offices with a Democrat incumbent seeking re-election, a Post endorsement of a Republican challenger virtually never happens. The fact that this year’s crop of Republican primary Post endorsees included a 2004 Green Party candidate, a candidate with an apparent Democrat past and a gay-rights activist may have also tainted the other endorsements in the minds of Republican voters. It is only natural that such a record would create distrust among Republicans deciding whom to nominate in their own primary.

In 2004, the Post’s endorsement of Councilman Kurt Odenwald in the contest for the Republican nomination for St. Louis County Executive is blamed by some as being decisive in Odenwald’s wafer-thin loss to former County Executive Gene McNary. It may have also played a role in Jay Kantzler’s 2002 upset loss to convicted felon Al Hanson in the GOP primary for State Auditor.

So, what about this year? Two thirds (8 out of 12) of the Republicans endorsed by the Post lost. In contrast, 71% of the Democrats the paper endorsed won their primaries.

Was the Post endorsement the “kiss of death” for Republicans, or was it merely coincidental?

The most prominent “casualty” was State Rep. Jack Jackson, who lost the GOP nod for State Auditor by less than a percentage point in spite of putting a half million dollars of his own cash into the campaign. However, Jackson carried most of the counties in the Post distribution area, including St. Louis County, the city, and neighboring St. Charles, Jefferson and Franklin Counties. On the other hand, in a race that close, virtually every factor can be decisive. One can argue Jackson would have won enough additional votes here to win if he hadn’t had the endorsement.

The Post endorsed African American candidates for contested nominations for St. Louis area congressional seats, and both lost decisively. State Rep. Sherman Parker’s loss to 2nd District incumbent Rep. Todd Akin was widely expected, although the 8-to-1 margin was a bit sobering. The big surprise for non-insiders was former nominee Leslie Farr’s lopsided loss in the 1st District to newcomer Mark Byrne. Farr had recently demonstrated relative success in raising money, and had been establishing credibility among the media. The loss was apparently not racially based, as Farr lost in black city wards as well as in white suburbs. Could the endorsement of the liberal Post have caused voters to think Farr was too moderate?

In the only contested area GOP primary for the state senate, Post endorsee Councilman Joe Brazil was a 2-to-1 loser to new incumbent Sen. Scott Rupp. But Rupp is an incumbent, fresh off his victory to win the seat in a special election. Brazil also had to answer to a history of alcohol-related offenses and, even worse for Republicans, a political history in Florissant where he was apparently regarded as a Democrat.

Perhaps the most glaring defeat for a Post endorsee occurred in St. Charles County’s 13th state rep district, where Stephanie Bell finished dead last in a 5-way contest with less than 6% of the vote. She not only lost 8-to-1 to Dr. Bob Onder (The Oracle’s allergist), she even lost by 2-to-1 to the candidate who finished next-to-last.

In fact, the only Post endorsee to win a Republican primary for state rep was an incumbent. In addition to Bell, Post endorsees who lost were Charles Cuba in central St. Louis County’s 87th district, former rep. Steve Banton in the Wildwood-based 89th and Charles Stadtlander in Kirkwood’s 94th. The lopsided losses of Cuba, the 2004 candidate of the Green Party facing a Republican incumbent, and Stadtlander, a gay-rights advocate, were not surprising. However, the “Post curse” might be blamed in Banton’s case. As a seasoned house veteran, having served two prior districts before term limits, he offered experience rarely available in a post-term-limits universe (especially for someone under 60). He also enjoyed superior name recognition and was every bit as conservative as the district.

The survivors

Sen. Jim Talent won re-nomination easily in spite of the Post endorsement, but high-profile, scandal-free, non-controversial incumbents of both parties generally sail to renomination without regard to newspaper endorsements.

State Rep. Charles Portwood is a different story. Alcohol-related driving offenses two years ago made Portwood damaged goods. His recent actions distancing himself from unpopular Gov. Matt Blunt may not necessarily have played that well with Republican primary voters. Some may have even smelled a fish in the Post endorsement, suspecting that the pro-Democrat paper was merely trying to boost the weaker GOP candidate in order to help the Democratic nominee in November. (That conspiracy theory will pick up momentum if the Post doesn’t endorse Portwood then.) Portwood ended up winning by just 132 votes. Whether the Post nod restored his credibility and put him over the top or made the contest as close as it was is anybody’s guess.

Republican endorsees won nomination in county council races in St. Charles County and central/west St. Louis County. Joe Cronin won narrowly in St. Charles County, 53-47%, but I don’t have any background to analyze.

In the St. Louis County contest, political newcomer Colleen Wasinger, whom the Post endorsed, handily defeated Fenton Mayor Dennis Hancock. This was exactly the kind of down-ballot contest where the Post endorsement could have wreaked havoc, but didn’t. The Post (mistakenly in my judgment) characterized Wasinger as a moderate, which the Post regards as complimentary but most West County Republican primary voters do not. Hancock enjoyed superior name recognition from his two terms as Fenton mayor and an unsuccessful run for County Executive, as well as some “false return” name recognition in the form of voter confusion with former Congressman Mel Hancock (author of the Hancock Amendment) and former State Rep. John Hancock (who was actually a paid consultant for Wasinger). Both candidates sported endorsements from GOP township organizations and prominent politicians. Wasinger enjoyed a 2-to-1 fundraising advantage over Hancock, but she still raised less than $100,000, which trailed both council candidates in the neighboring 5th District and four of the five contenders in the similarly sized 4th senate district in the city. Wasinger’s campaign overcame the obstacles, perhaps including the Post endorsement, and prevailed by 61-39%.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

The professor beats the pols

After all the whining from supporters of four experienced legislators about how we couldn’t afford to elect a senator with no legislative experience, voters in the 4th senate district opted instead for the inclusive, principled advocacy of young college professor Jeff Smith. The margin was much larger than anyone expected.

As regular readers know, the Oracle had picked second-place finisher Yaphett El-Amin to eek out a narrow win. What happened? Well, thanks to very prompt election returns in ward-by-ward breakdowns that the City’s new Election Board and its new computer voting machines produced, we have some answers.

The reason for who won, as I had correctly forecast, was turnout. Fewer voters turned out this year than rookie Secretary of State Robin Carnahan had forecast: not only less than in the presidential year primary two years ago, but also substantially fewer than in the comparable election four years ago. Low-turnout elections favor candidates who can get their supporters to vote. I hadn’t thought that Smith supporters would do so, but they did, and Smith won.

Seven wards produced turnouts that, relatively speaking, exceeded projections for an election with this kind of turnout, and five others notably lagged those projections. All but one of those exceeding projections were wards in which Smith finished first or second, including his top three. In every ward but one, the increased relative turnout seemed to consist of Smith voters, because those wards also produced larger shares of the vote for Smith than I had projected. In contrast, all five underperforming wards were north side wards carried by El-Amin. Turnout in Ward 1, which is home to both El-Amin and Amber Boykins, was down 24% from the last state senate election four years ago. The only north-side ward that exceeded turnout projections was the 21st Ward, which El-Amin lost to Boykins.

Except for the 21st, turnout had a regional flavor. I had projected that the eight north-side wards would produce 41% of the district’s vote, but they only produced 37.5%. In contrast, I had projected that the four central/southeast wards where Smith was strongest would produce just 19% of the district’s vote, but they produced 22% instead. The six southwest wards that collectively gave Derio Gambaro a 3-point edge over Smith (and Smith a 43-point margin over El-Amin) produced nearly 41% of the vote instead of the 39% I expected. All of this worked to the benefit of Smith and to the detriment of El-Amin.

In addition, El-Amin failed to dominate the African American vote by the extent that she needed to win. I had written last week that she could win district-wide by winning 70% of the African-American vote. Because of the disproportionate turnout, she actually would have needed 76% from the eight north-side wards. She got a little less than 56%. The seemingly moribund Boykins campaign came back to life the final week, and Boykins snared 27% of the north side vote and nearly 13% overall. In the white and integrated wards, Boykins’ share of the vote for African-American candidates increased. In the six southwest city wards, Boykins matched El-Amin’s total.

Also, as previously forecast, El-Amin’s efforts to win white support among fellow Muslims in the Bosnian community went nowhere. In the 14th Ward, whose 4th District precincts included substantial numbers of both Bosnians and African-Americans, El-Amin won less than 5% of the vote. Results in the demographically similar 5th precinct of the 10th Ward won’t be known until precinct results are issued.

Third-place Derio Gambaro fared only a percentage point better than I had forecast. The only wards where he scored significantly better than my own (unpublished) forecasts were on his home turf. He won an extra 5% in his home 10th Ward and an extra 4% in the 24th (which he still lost to Smith), which was in the state rep district he had represented and where he was committeeman before ward redistricting divorced his Hill neighborhood from then-Alderman Tom Bauer.) Gambaro didn’t win, or even seriously contend, because his south-side strength could not overcome getting less than 1% in the eight north-side wards.

Smith’s biggest disappointment had to be the continued dominance of racial voting, in spite of Smith’s dedicated efforts to woo African American votes. Smith won just 10.6% in the eight north-side wards, short of my own (unpublished) pessimistic forecast of 12.5%. (Smith won 20% in the 26th Ward, but that ward has a larger white minority than other north-side wards in the district.) This was well short of totals earned by whites such as Mayor Francis Slay, Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce and Smith’s predecessor, Sen. Patrick Dougherty, in recent, similarly racially divisive contests, but all of them did so running as incumbents, and with at least some north-side ward backing. Smith’s 10% (11 times better than fellow white Gambaro) realistically wasn’t bad for a non-incumbent facing three well-known African American opponents.

Monday, August 07, 2006

White cops issue last-minute smear

This morning, crews from STL Direct were distributing flyers in my 16th Ward neighborhood (and elsewhere, I'll bet) that claim to have been paid for by the St. Louis Police Officers Association PAC. I don't doubt the accuracy of the disclaimer. That's the union-like organization of mostly white police. African American officers have a separate organization.

Ripping off the name of Howie Mandel's game show, the brochure is titled "Deal or No Deal?" It goes on to allege that out of state "politicians" are trying to get voters to elect Jeff Smith to be "their" state senator, with contributions totalling $25,000. It urges voters to pick Derio Gambaro instead.

Distributed on the day before the election, it is timed to hit without an opportunity for response. Such a response might include the fact that $25K is less than 10% of Smith's warchest, and that it is far less than the much larger sums Gambaro himself has received from out-of-district (some of it also out-of-state) and out-of-party sources. Pure hypocrisy.

The flyer also doesn't mention its true motivation. This is payback by the cops to Gambaro for his loyal support of cops' politically unpopular efforts not to be required to live in the city that pays their salaries. Cops also recognize that Gambaro is the only senate candidate (out of five) that opposes a civilian oversight board. Some cops, the bad apples, like to mess with people, cheat, plant evidence, and sometimes beat the crap out of a suspect who they decide (as prosecutor, judge and jury all wrapped up into one tarnished blue uniform) doesn't "respect" them enough, all in the name of "leveling the playing field" in a job where hardened criminals don't play fair either. They like the current system, where Internal Affairs goes through the motions of review and the police board pretends to provide civilian oversight, but where most atrocities get swept neatly under the rug, time and time again. They trust Gambaro as the only candidate who is willing to let them keep doing as they please.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Handicapping the 4th District senate race

Five major candidates are competing for the Democratic nomination for the open 4th District senate seat. Winning 30% of the vote should be enough, but a little less might suffice. In a similarly splintered 5-way contest for the Republican nod in the 2nd congressional district in 2000, 26% was enough for underdog state rep. Todd Akin.

Impact of turnout

As noted in my July 29 post, this should be a low turnout election, which means that getting one’s known supporters to vote will be more important than persuading undecideds to vote for you. Whichever candidate most effectively gets her/his supporters to vote probably wins.

Each candidate has some organizational support from party regulars, but none of them dominates this aspect. Organizational support is more important for turning out supportive voters than for influencing how people vote, as the impact of ward endorsements on how the ward actually votes has been eroding steadily for more than 50 years. In this election, an endorsed candidate will win the ward less than half the time.

The votes of motivated single-issue voters are also split. Conservative Derio Gambaro is only competitive because of strong support from voters opposing abortion and GLBT rights, supporting school choice and opposing civilian oversight of police, as well as strong ethnic loyalty from Italian Americans. Jeff Smith scores with lifestyles voters concerned about losing abortion and GLBT rights. Amber Boykins might have a cross-racial niche with teachers (thanks to the Local 420 endorsement), but that appeal probably loses out to the perception that her campaign has faded.

But the most important single-issue motivator is race. The historically African American district (whose history traces back to Missouri’s first black state senator) now has just a slight African American majority in population and a slight white majority of registered voters. But that racial balance does not mean it is integrated; the north end is mostly black and the south end is mostly white. The district’s only white senator in the last 46 years is its current one, term-limited Sen. Pat Dougherty. Consequently, whites are largely content with the status quo, while many African Americans long to take back “their seat.” Discontent is a better motivator than contentment, so African American candidates gain that motivational advantage in an otherwise low-turnout election.

The 4th district was progressive enough to give John Kerry more than 80% of its presidential votes in 2004, but not so progressive that about 90% of its voters won’t end up backing a candidate of their own race. This is partially because most of the candidates aren’t even trying to reach voters of the other race, even though all but one have raised over $100,000 and therefore have the funds to do so. For example, my wife and I are highly targeted “frequent voters” in the white south end of the district, but we didn't receive a single piece of direct mail from any African American candidate until today. Similarly, a black blogger I know was surprised to hear about Gambaro’s direct mail pieces, because he hadn’t received any of them up north. The only candidate doing more than token campaigning district-wide is Smith.

The other big factor is the effectiveness of grassroots organization, especially in getting out the vote (GOTV). All candidates have good records of that, but one’s is different from the others. While all have the benefit of experienced traditional ward organizations, Smith also has a youth-oriented set of volunteers who nearly pulled off an upset win over Russ Carnahan in the 2004 3rd District congressional primary, now memorialized in the prize-winning documentary, Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore? That near-miss was powered by a virtually unprecedented mobilization of young voters. That is a very self-indulgent “me-centered” voting group for whom personal lifestyle is the most important motivator. They have the worst turnout record of any age group, apparently because taking time out to vote and doing the personal planning necessary to insure that voting finds a place in the schedule are often low priority unless they feel personally threatened. This is especially true in an off-year primary election. Smith succeeded in reaching those voters and motivating them to vote in 2004. Whether he can repeat that success in this lower-profile contest will probably determine whether he wins or loses.

Analysis by candidate

Former alderman Kenny Jones has by far the most legislative experience, but has raised little money. Money is more important than experience for both the Democratic and Republican Parties. Jones does have the endorsement of his own ward organization (the 22nd) and also the midtown 17th. But he is also haunted by whispers that he may be implicated in the pending scandal involving fraudulent petition signatures in an unsuccessful drive to recall Alderman Jeffrey Boyd. Jones should be given the benefit of the doubt unless and until charges are filed, and he deserves to fare better, but he will finish last with less than 5% of the vote.

African American state rep. Amber Boykins showed early signs of support across racial lines. She started fast with significant fundraising success, won a couple endorsements in white wards, and enjoyed a slight lead in an early poll commissioned by opponent Smith. But her campaign seems to have fizzled down the stretch. The only recent good news was the endorsement by the teachers union, but they aren’t working for Boykins the way they did for successful school board candidates Donna Jones and Peter Downs. Voter backlash against Downs and Jones following their ouster of Superintendent Creg Williams may even make the Local 420 endorsement damaging to her. I now expect Boykins to finish fourth.

Derio Gambaro, who is white, is a conservative in a liberal district, but he should be favored to win against a progressive vote split four ways. But his base support quickly eroded, as leaders of the three most conservative wards endorsed other candidates, and Gambaro alienated many conservatives with his unpopular support for eliminating police residency requirements and his seemingly arrogant personal demeanor. Gambaro is openly courting Republican crossover votes, backed by some key GOP committee members, but those votes are less important because they come from outside the typical Democratic primary electorate, not at the expense of one of his opponents. His well-financed campaign produces literature that is slick but not all that effective. (The anti-Smith crossword puzzle attack piece was cleverly done, but full of cheap shots and distortions. Two pieces focusing on eminent domain (a once-hot issue whose importance has dropped like a rock after the Republican legislature seized the opportunity and acted on the issue) feature a photo of Gambaro in front of a bulldozer in a pose that strikes me as a “Dukakis in the tank” moment.) Gambaro supporters are confident because they see lots of his lawn signs and other positive reinforcement all around them (including today’s endorsement by the South City, South Side and Southwest City Journals); but there aren’t enough like-minded voters district-wide to pull it off. Gambaro will do better than many have predicted, but his south-side strength cannot overcome finishing dead last everywhere north of Delmar. Gambaro will finish just a respectable third with maybe 22%. (See my July 9 post for more about Gambaro's chances.)

Two-term state rep. Yaphett El-Amin, who has the advantage of being listed first on the ballot, is seeking to consolidate African American support with an in-your-face appeal to voters who resent white representation of the historically African American district. Supporters include most black ward organizations, Organization for Black Struggle, SEIU Local 2000 and ACORN. Endorsements of the black weeklies aren’t out yet, but El-Amin is expected to sweep both the St. Louis Argus (owned by her father) and the St. Louis American. Her main strategy seems to be copied from the reputed Karl Rove playbook: Incite your base by taunting voters who aren’t going to vote for you anyway. She politicized July’s power outages in appearances with Rev. Al Sharpton, and her campaign is connected with a “push poll” and press release that pointedly referred to Smith as the “known Caucasian.” (Poor Derio is just as Caucasian, but apparently less “known.”) While these tactics alienated many white voters, they helped El-Amin cement her appeal as the leading candidate in the black community. She gained support at the expense of fellow blacks Boykins and Jones. She alienated voters like myself who had respected El-Amin but who were realistically already planning to vote for someone else. That works just fine for El-Amin. However, a supplemental strategy to play the religion card to fellow Muslims in the Bosnian community currently shows no visible signs of success. El-Amin went to the expense of printing a special batch of Bosnian-language lawn signs (and a billboard), but her only lawn signs in the district’s Bosnian neighborhood appear to be those on the Islamic Community Center property, which strikes me as improper.

Jeff Smith, a white college professor, is taking the opposite tack: seeking to form a broad cross-racial appeal that lends itself to representing the diverse district effectively. His passionate advocacy of progressive ideals wins the respect not only of progressives, but also moderates and even some conservatives, in the same manner that conservatives Ronald Reagan and John Ashcroft won the respect of moderate voters who admired them for standing up for their principles. Smith’s well-organized ground game is winning new supporters every day. On a personal level, he is the hardest working, most energized candidate the Oracle has ever seen. The 2004 outsider now enjoys establishment backing from many labor unions and ward leaders, including Francis Slay, father of the mayor. Both the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Arch City Chronicle have endorsed Smith.

Who wins and why

Any candidate that can dominate the vote among her/his own race wins. Down south, the white vote is divided by abortion. 2004 Democratic primary results in the 3rd congressional district portion of this district (the white southern half) showed that 43% chose pro-life candidates (i.e., neither Smith nor Carnahan nor any other pro-choice candidate). While most of the remaining 57% (as well as some prominent pro-lifers like the elder Slay) will back Smith, pro-life Gambaro’s total will erode part of the white vote that Smith needs to win. The idealist Smith is not inclined to appeal to the racial fears that might convince Gambaro backers to switch. Moreover, today's mail also produced four blistering attack pieces, two each from Smith and Gambaro attacking each other. Both probably alienated south-side supporters of the other who might have otherwise considered them a "lesser evil" when confronted with the possibility of insensitive representation by a north-side senator.

Up north, the 3-way split of the black vote first appears to be hopelessly splintered, given the intense personal animosity among the black candidates. But a strong underlying desire of black voters to retake “their seat” will cause many to coalesce behind whichever black candidate seems to be strongest. At the moment, that would seem to be El-Amin, whose campaign is peaking at exactly the right time. 70% of the black vote equals 30% of the district vote, probably enough to win. That’s a challenging number, but the apparent collapse of the Boykins campaign gives El-Amin a chance to pull it off.

Smith’s hopes depend on the effectiveness of his GOTV efforts. If he repeats what he did in 2004, he overcomes even a united north side and wins. But the “Rock the Vote” political awareness and anti-Amendment 2 fervor that made voting a high priority for Smith voters in the 2004 primary aren’t in play now. Sentiment that Smith has it in the bag makes motivating these voters even harder. Smith has an excellent campaign crew that has a really tough challenge. I think they will fall short.

My call is that El-Amin will edge Smith for the win. I would like nothing better than for Smith supporters whom I have identified as poorly motivated to prove me wrong. Smith and his loyal cadre of hard workers deserve better.