This year’s Missouri primary made national news, not only because of the overwhelming passage of Proposition C, but also because of what it meant (or didn’t mean) for the continuing media narrative of anti-incumbency. Here are a few observations:
Proposition C and the Federal Health Care Law
There was no way this vote could be spun favorably for the Obama Administration. The ballot measure attacking the “compulsory purchase” feature of the new federal health care law far exceeded expectations, garnering an astonishing 71% of the vote, even though more money was spent opposing the measure than supporting it. That was nearly 22 points ahead of what Republican John McCain, the presidential candidate most identified with a Yes vote on this proposition, received in 2008. While the mix of voters was much different, and it is mathematically possible (though terribly unlikely) that all of the measure’s yes votes came from voters who had backed McCain, realistically there were still plenty of Obama voters who turned around and backed Proposition C. In the City of St. Louis, for example, where McCain managed a mere 15.5% of the vote, Proposition C won approval from 41.1%. McCain didn’t come close to winning any city ward, but Proposition C carried six of them. There were fewer than 5,000 city voters casting Republican primary ballots, but Proposition C got over 13,000 city votes.
The bad news for Democrats is that there is plenty wrong with their new health care law. The worse news is that the voters know it. Democratic U.S. Senate nominee Robin Carnahan waited until the bill had passed to voice her support for it. Come November, that belated support may come back to haunt her.
The good news for Democrats is that they don’t need a Carnahan victory in this already Republican-held seat to maintain control of the senate.
Few signs of vulnerability among major candidates
Missouri did not repeat other states’ proclivity to slap down party-favored candidates. Both Carnahan and Republican U.S. Senate nominee Roy Blunt won by comfortable margins. So-called Tea Party opposition to Blunt was splintered, as many from that movement backed Blunt, and lead challenger Chuck Purgason mustered a lower than expected 13%. State Auditor Susan Montee and six of seven incumbent congresspersons faced opposition in their own primaries, but only one (Rep. Jo Ann Emerson (R-MO-8)) fell below 80%. The poorest showing by an incumbent without organized opposition was Rep. Russ Carnahan (D-MO-3) with 80.1%. The 63% compiled by Carnahan's Republican challenger, first-time candidate Ed Martin, was impressive in a 3-way contest that included last election's primary runner-up and a candidate with the NASCAR-appealing name of Rusty Wallace.
Very few incumbents lost, but this was mostly because very few incumbents faced opposition for renomination by their party, and at the state legislative level because relatively fewer incumbents were eligible to seek reelection due to Missouri’s term limits. No incumbent state senators were ousted, and only two incumbent state representatives lost. Democratic voters in the City of St. Louis were the hotbed of discontent, showing three of four contested incumbents the door. They were Circuit Clerk Mariano Favazza and both of the state’s defeated state reps, James Morris and Hope Whitehead. Jefferson County Democrats unseated the county’s first county executive, Chuck Banks, by a wide 70-30 margin. St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley made a weak showing, getting less than 76% of the Democratic primary vote (just 60% in south county) against Ron Levy, an 81-year-old political gadfly who previously ran on the Republican, Libertarian, Reform and U.S. Taxpayer Party tickets. But Republican incumbents in St. Charles County swept aside their challenges by comfortable margins.
Hostility towards judiciary?
One anti-incumbency example with national implications occurred in judicial elections. Sitting circuit judges in Missouri are rarely challenged, especially in their own primary. This year, only one incumbent circuit judge was challenged, and she lost by 20 points. This was Republican Judge Cindy Eckelkamp of Franklin County, who lost even though her family name is business and political royalty in that county. In St. Charles County, Associate Circuit Judge Matthew Thornhill (R) won, but with just 43% in a four-candidate field. If these isolated results are symptoms of pervasive voter discontent with the judiciary, it could play well for Republicans in other contests in November.
Hostility towards party insiders?
The influence of party insiders showed mixed results, and not in the ways conventional wisdom would have expected. In the Republican primary, where grassroots Tea Party movements have caused havoc in other states, Missouri’s establishment-backed Republicans did well. Joining Blunt on the statewide ticket is State Auditor candidate Tom Schweich, who won with the backing of most of the party’s elite, even though that backing was generally regarded as a reward for getting out of the U.S. Senate race. Both Blunt and Schweich overcame the storied “Post endorsement jinx
” to win.
It is was a different story in the southwest Missouri contest for the open congressional seat vacated by Blunt. First-time candidate Billy Long easily won the Republican primary in a field that included a state senator, a state representative and the prosecuting attorney from the district’s largest county. His win was foreshadowed by his early fundraising success. The Democratic primary winner was Scott Eckersley, the lawyer whose firing created the email retention controversy that rocked the administration of former Gov. Matt Blunt (R), son of this year’s senatorial nominee.
But the big revolts against party insiders occurred in Missouri’s Democratic primary. As noted earlier, Jefferson County’s sitting county executive lost, 70-30. In St. Louis County’s contest for the open 14th District senate seat, former University City mayor Joe Adams claimed unanimous support from all of the district’s Democratic committee members, but he came in dead last in a four-candidate field.
In the City of St. Louis, one would have expected that a contest for a low-visibility office like Circuit Clerk would have been ripe for voters’ reliance on the recommendation of their Democratic ward organization. Yet, only half of those organizations who made an endorsement were able to deliver for their endorsed candidate, some by less 5 points, and only five “delivering” as much as 60% of the vote in the one-on-one contest. The 6th Ward’s endorsement of incumbent Favazza was good for less than 36%. Even with the city-wide trend favoring challenger Schweitzer, Favazza still carried four wards whose organizations had endorsed against him.
Racial forgiveness (for a Democrat)As I noted before the election
, I was pleasantly surprised at how uninterested African American voters were in the ties of successful Democratic Circuit Clerk candidate Schweitzer to her late father-in-law, who had run for city school board in 1991 on a slate organized by the former Metro South Citizens Council, a forerunner of today’s Council of Conservative Citizens. I was unaware of any effort by Schweitzer to distance herself from his candidacy, and she didn’t when I interviewed her for that blog post. Schweitzer was endorsed by at least two African American newspapers (the American
and the Evening Whirl
) and one black ward organization (the 4th), she carried five north-side wards, and she lost the overall north-side vote by a single percentage point.
While I would not expect a Republican or Tea Party activist to receive the same pass as Schweitzer did, it is heartening to see the display of tolerance, at least within the party.
It isn’t easy being a former Green
While Democrats urge former Green Party members to return to their party fold, they greeted those who sought to return as candidates with the backs of their hands. Byron DeLear, a Green Party congressional candidate in California in 2006, lost his bid for the Democratic nomination for an open state rep seat in Maryland Heights, 64-36, while former Webster Groves mayor Terri Williams, who was active in Green Party politics in the 1990s, lost her bid for the open 5th District council seat, 58-42.