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.

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.


Blogger Travis Reems said...


Traditionally, it has been black Christian (Protestant, Lutheran, Methodist, Baptist) churches that have provided the strong GOTV mechanism in that community. Does candidate El-Amin, a person of the Islamic faith, have the connections with the black Christian community to engender the support necessary to push voters to the polls in large enough numbers to garner the 70% needed?

August 3, 2006 at 9:55 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The anti-Amendment 2 fervor of 2004's primary likely helped pro-life candidates, such as Favazza and Barry. This time, with less fervor, Gambaro will have less devoutly Catholic voters turning out for a partisan primary, benefitting Smith.

But otherwise, your analysis is pretty much dead-on. If El-Amin carries more than 60% of the northside, or Gambaro more than 40% of the southside, Smith will have a little chance of winning, despite his cross-district campaign.

August 3, 2006 at 10:39 AM  
Anonymous K. Johnson said...

It would also seem to me that it would be unfortunate for broadminded individuals to be stuck with partisan like El-Amin. As an African-American, I find very little to motivate me to vote for her, aside from the irrelevant fact that she is, too, African-American.

Further, if she continues (if elected) to ignore white voters like she has during this campaign, she will find herself in one of two positions: actively campaigned against next election cycle, or recalled. White voters, unlike those well-meaning african-american voters in north St. Louis attempting to recall Bosley, will not miss the mark. If the want her out, she's out.

August 3, 2006 at 1:12 PM  
Blogger St. Louis Oracle said...

I don't believe state legislators are subject to recall. I've never known one to have been subject to a recall campaign. Recalls of city aldermen occur because there is a recall provision in the city charter. That provision does not govern state offices, even for districts situated wholly within the city.

August 3, 2006 at 1:21 PM  
Anonymous Katie said...

I can't imagine why you peg Gambaro as being arrogant. I have known him for 15 years and he is one of the kindest, humblest men I know.

August 3, 2006 at 11:28 PM  
Blogger St. Louis Oracle said...

Katie, what I referred to in this post was Gambaro's "seemingly arrogant personal demeanor." I went into more detail about that in my July 9 post. He consciously tries to project confidence, but there's a fine line between confidence and arrogance. The arrogance especially comes across at public forums when he tries to belittle an opponent's record or views. It's probably harder for someone who likes him to notice.

August 4, 2006 at 12:12 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

travis, the black protestant christian community, which you correctly identify as a huge gotv factor among african americans, has emphatically endorsed amber b. it will be intersting to see if this endorsement cuts into el-amin's projected stronghold among the black voters. i suspect that it will not, as i seriously question the continued efficacy of the african american church nationally, as well as in black st louis.

August 7, 2006 at 9:28 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm of the opinion that Jones is probably the most qualified candidate in this race. Assuming he doesn't win, what do you think he does next, run city-wide?


August 7, 2006 at 12:53 PM  
Blogger mocommunist said...

Thanks for your work in the city of St louis i enjoy what you do!

August 9, 2006 at 4:20 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


November 12, 2006 at 5:10 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


December 3, 2006 at 12:58 PM  

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