Why does Missouri have a baker’s dozen of possible U.S. Senate candidates?

March 19, 2021 9:00 am

Sen. Roy Blunt speaks at a hearing reviewing the coronavirus response effort on Sept. 16, 2020 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Andrew Harnik-Pool/Getty Images)

In winter 2007, weeks into my tenure in the state Senate, I prepared to board a flight back from Washington, D.C, and bumped into former U.S. Senator Jim Talent at the gate.

I’d hosted a series of events for the Democrat who had defeated him a year earlier, Claire McCaskill, and been an active surrogate for her during the campaign. But if he was aware of that he certainly showed no sign of it. 

After we exchanged pleasantries, I asked him if he missed the U.S. Senate.

“Not at all,” he said, with genuine conviction.

I asked why not.

“Jeff, the United States Senate is often called the world’s greatest deliberative body,” wistfully replied Talent, whose congressional service had followed a stint in the Missouri House, including a term as Minority Leader. 

“But it’s actually the world’s MOST deliberative body,” he said.

“Everything moves at a snail’s pace,” Talent continued. “The world’s GREATEST deliberative body is actually the Missouri Senate. I used to walk over and watch sometimes; those guys actually DEBATE. They fight over policy; they laugh; they sometimes rethink their positions; then they compromise and actually pass bills. The kind of things the U.S. Senate used to do, back in its heyday. Anyway, I promise you are going to love it.”

Sen. Talent was right. 

Members of the Missouri Senate did argue, laugh, and (often, though not always) compromise to pass legislation. 

Unlike in the U.S. Senate, where party affiliation determines seating, in Missouri it is seniority that governs where you sit. Being grouped with opposite party senators naturally leads to the formation of cross-party bonds.

Unlike in the U.S. Senate, any rank-and-file senator can offer floor amendments at any time, and often, three-fourths or more of the chamber is on the floor during debate. Strong arguments persuade undecided senators. Amendments are drafted on the fly. It can be… suspenseful. 

Unlike in the largely foreordained U.S. Senate, the best-informed senators arguments often carry the day, and except on the most divisive of issues, votes rarely fall strictly along party lines.

Unlike in the U.S. Senate, opportunities for bipartisan collaboration exist long before bills reach the floor. As friendships blossom — which happens organically in such a small chamber (just 34 senators) — majority-party senators are often happy to incorporate minority-party senators’ language into bills.

But as George Packer wrote a decade ago, when the modern U.S. Senate’s dysfunction was coming into stark relief, today’s U.S. Senate is almost the polar opposite of the Missouri Senate I just described (A candid Sen. McCaskill is featured in Packer’s piece, “The Empty Chamber”).

So, some Missouri politicians (and perhaps as importantly, their families) may see our state Senate — a truly deliberative body where filibusters are leveraged to produce compromise that no one loves but most can live with — and assume the U.S. Senate is a much grander version of it.

It’s not. 

It’s a mostly miserable place, even according to many of those who spent tens of millions of dollars to get there.

As of this writing, at least nine big-name Republicans (former Gov. Eric Greitens, Attorney General Eric Schmitt, Lt. Gov. Mike Kehoe, Treasurer Scott Fitzpatrick, businessman John Brunner and U.S. Reps. Vicky Hartzler, Billy Long, Jason Smith and Ann Wagner) and four Democrats (Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas, state Sen. Brian Williams, former state Sen. Scott Sifton, and ex-Marine Lucas Kunce) were actively considering the U.S. Senate race.

There are many reasons for the baker’s dozen of potential candidates.

One is Missouri’s fade from national bellwether status over the past two decades, as I’ve previously covered

This has intensified intra-party competition among Republicans, who have just begun to encounter an unfamiliar problem that bedeviled Missouri Democrats for decades: having too many current, former and aspiring statewide officeholders and not enough seats to go around. It leads to a high-stakes political game of musical chairs we’re about to see in the 2022 Senate and 2024 governor’s races.

Another reason for the crowded Republican field is the notion that, in a single impulsively dictated press release (yet true to the voice he honed on Twitter), Trump could crown a nominee. 

This is a likely impetus for the candidacies of Reps. Smith and Long — and clearly the impetus for Greitens’ recent cozying up to Trump toadies like the indicted Steve Bannon, the humiliated Rudy Giuliani and other Trump hangers-on Greitens has joined on the Island of Political Misfit Toys.

The primary reason for Democrats to consider the race is Greitens, who may give them their best and arguably only shot at the race.

And one bipartisan reason is the urging of consultants eying a payday. Nobody believes in you and your unlimited potential as a candidate more than the guy who stands to build his dream home after pocketing 12 percent of your $25 million ad buy.  

But perhaps a more sanguine explanation for the baker’s dozen is that some Missouri politicians are a little bit spoiled by serving in the Missouri Senate, or at least by watching it up close, as Jim Talent did 30 years ago this spring.

And maybe — is it too much to dream? — whoever we elect to replace a statesman like Sen. Roy Blunt can help bring a taste of the Missouri Senate to the United States Senate, and help it regain its lost status as a truly great deliberative body.

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Jeff Smith
Jeff Smith

Jeff Smith is executive director of the Missouri Workforce Housing Association, which supports development of safe, affordable housing. Previously, he taught public policy at Dartmouth College and The New School, represented the city of St. Louis in the Senate, and wrote three books: Trading Places, on U.S. party alignment; Mr. Smith Goes to Prison, a memoir and argument for reform; and Ferguson in Black and White, an historical analysis of St. Louis inequality. He holds a Ph.D. in political science from Washington University.