County Democrats alienate crossover voters
As St. Louis County transitions to a reliably Democrat county, some county Democrats are slow to realize what their counterparts in the City of St. Louis have known – and dealt with – for years. Missouri has an open primary system, in which any voter can take any party's ballot. In Democrat areas, Republican voters often vote Democrat ballots in the primary, because that is where the action is. Especially in south St. Louis, where most city Republicans reside, Democrats have learned to tailor their approaches to grab these votes in the usually decisive Democratic primary. Mayor Francis Slay has mastered the technique.
In spite of the county's new blue hue in the general election, enough Republican voters remain to make the number of potential crossovers in the primary very significant, much more so than in the city. That is especially true this year, as the only Republican primary contests in most of the county are low-key matches for the nominations for county executive and county auditor. The biggest draws for Republican primary voters will be in one state senate district in mid county and just one state representative district. The Republican primary for the right to lose to Democratic 1st District Congressman Lacy Clay is low profile and mostly where few Republicans reside. Neither Republican incumbents for state auditor nor Congress in the 2nd District face primary opposition. The high-profile Democrat tussle for county executive, where both candidates are already on the airwaves, will be tempting for Republican voters to join.
Neither Democrat County Executive Charlie Dooley nor his primary challenger, County Councilman Steve Stenger, seem to have figured that out. Both have played to their party bases in ways that alienate the Republican crossover voters.
Dooley is currently airing an ad that compares Stenger to 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney. While that plays well with the Democrat base that comprises most of the primary vote, it leaves the crossover voters with a positive impression of Dooley's opponent. Even though Romney lost the county by 14 points in the general election, he out-polled every other Republican on the ballot, and was especially well-liked by the more moderate Republican voters that are most likely to cross over in the primary.
But Stenger burned his bridges to conservative Republican voters last year when running his wife's unsuccessful non-partisan campaign for a seat on the governing board of St. Louis Community College. The Stengers sent out flyers claiming that Allison Stenger would stand up to incumbent Joan McGivney “and her Tea Party friends.” That was a strange, false charge against McGivney, a long-time advocate for women's rights and public education who publicly favored marriage equality before it was cool. The flyer drew broad, unwanted attention when popular Post-Dispatch columnist Bill McClellan lambasted it. Tea Partiers, including county voters outside the district, took notice when a blog post on the St.Louis Tea Party web site protested. Steve Stenger foolishly alienated these potentially favorable crossover voters.
Both politically and in the interests of effective governance, Dooley, Stenger and other Democrats who focus myopically on their base should take lessons from seasoned city officials like Mayor Slay.