The biggest threat to Missouri’s 2022 legislative session? Ambition | Opinion

November 30, 2021 7:00 am

Missouri Capitol in Jefferson City (Creative Commons photo by Lee Harkness/Flikr).

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Former Missouri House Speaker Rod Jetton liked to say that the minute you put your name on a ballot, you lose 50 IQ points.

Trust me: He was only half-kidding.

It’s not just that political neophytes do dumb things once they decide to run for office. It’s that ambition often clouds the thinking of even experienced elected officials who seek higher office, which can throw real sand in the gears of the policy process. 

Because as Missouri has seen through the prism of its recent attorneys general, elected officials running for higher office are often more keen on making headlines than making policy.

More state senators than in any cycle in modern history are running for higher office or seriously considering doing so: President Pro Tem Dave Schatz (U.S. Senate candidate), Mike Moon (7th Congressional district candidate), Eric Burlison (7th Congressional district candidate), Rick Brattin (4th Congressional district candidate), Denny Hoskins (possible 4th Congressional district candidate), Bob Onder (possible St. Charles County Executive candidate), Steve Roberts (possible 1st Congressional district candidate), and Brian Williams (possible 1st Congressional district candidate). 

That’s nearly a quarter of the Missouri Senate potentially in the heat of a campaign that could make or break their political career.

A bumper crop of House members have already announced candidacies for higher office as well, including House Speaker Rob Vescovo (state Senate), Speaker Pro Tem John Wiemann (state Senate), General Laws Chairman Curtis Trent (state Senate), Rules–Administrative Oversight Chairman J. Eggleston (state Senate), Ethics Chairman Travis Fitzwater (state Senate), Special Committee on Criminal Justice Chairman Shamed Dogan (St. Louis County Executive), Special Committee on Small Business Chairman Nick Schroer (state Senate), Redistricting Chairman Dan Shaul (state Senate), Special Committee on Government Accountability Chairman David Gregory (state Auditor), Insurance Chairman Justin Hill (state Senate), Emerging Issues Chairman Aaron Griesheimer (state Senate), Children and Families Chairwoman Mary Elizabeth Coleman (state Senate), and Sara Walsh (4th Congressional district).

An additional slew of state senators is also already rumored to be eyeing 2024 statewide bids – including but not limited to Tony Luetkemeyer (Attorney General), Caleb Rowden (Lieutenant Governor), Bill Eigel (Lieutenant Governor) and Holly Rehder (Secretary of State).

Of course, in the pre-term limits era, there was less turnover. And many of this year’s candidacies are a downstream consequence of Roy Blunt’s decision to leave his U.S. Senate seat and 2022 being a redistricting cycle. 

But neither 2002 nor 2012 saw this combination of such a high number of aspirational legislators and those legislators holding such key positions of power in the Capitol.

The aforementioned list of two dozen legislators is not some group of also-rans; these are most of the building’s impact players.

It’s the reality of term limits: The most ambitious legislators must make their legislative mark quickly. And some will inevitably fall prey to the syndrome Rod Jetton observed 20 years ago, when — as the key recruiter spearheading Republicans’ first takeover of the Missouri House in a half century — Jetton became both a student and victim of that outsized ambition.

The issue with the most power to blow up the legislative session is the one that most directly impacts the careers of many ambitious legislators: Congressional redistricting.

The 2011 round of redistricting was like a big game of Musical Chairs, with the legislature deciding to stop the music while then-Congressman Russ Carnahan was without a seat, leading to a furious Carnahan running a kamikaze mission in a majority-black electorate against fellow incumbent Lacy Clay, effectively ending Carnahan’s political career.

This 2021 round of congressional redistricting is more like a game of Twister, with a wide variety of legislators trying to figure out how to contort districts such that they can get both feet firmly down on the ground inside of them – along with a requisite number of their supporters.

The problem is that it can be very difficult to accommodate people with competing views.

For instance, take the 2nd Congressional district, which is currently centered on St. Louis County, though it eschews the most Democratic neighborhoods (i.e., University City, Maplewood, Richmond Heights, and largely Black parts of Rock Hill and Webster Groves). It also contains some of the most densely populated areas of St. Charles and Jefferson Counties, respectively.

There are competing interests at play. 

First, both St. Charles state senators are politically ambitious and will almost certainly run for higher office in one of the next few cycles. Would they like to get all of St. Charles County, where they are best known, into one district to maximize the percentage of voters who start out familiar with them in any possible future congressional primary? Sure!

Similarly, Speaker Rob Vescovo — who hails from northern Jefferson County, the piece of the County that currently sits in the 2nd District — might have his eyes on Congress someday.

With JeffCo. now balkanized into three separate districts, JeffCo. Republicans cannot cohere at the federal level behind county interests, such as, say, a future state senator’s congressional bid.

And so – especially with 41-year old 8th District Congressman Jason Smith seeming to settle in for a long U.S. House career as he climbs the ladder towards an influential Ways and Means Committee chairmanship and the 3rd Congressional District being overwhelmingly rural – the Speaker may prefer that Jefferson County be united inside the 2nd district.

But given the respective counties’ sizes – and the desires of Ballwin-based incumbent Congresswoman Ann Wagner — there is no way to place the entirety of both St. Charles and Jefferson Counties in one district. 

Further, Wagner likely wouldn’t want either of those counties to be fully contained in her district — either county’s more conservative electorate could conceivably constitute a base for a potential primary on her right flank. Accordingly, while Wagner likely wants a slightly more Republican district, she may not want too conservative a district.

And so the redrawing of the 2nd Congressional district alone could mean that the House takes one position (district moves south to encompass all of JeffCo.), the Senate leadership aligning with Wagner and taking a second position (district remains centered on St. Louis County with small pieces of St. Charles and JeffCo.), and the Senate’s Conservative Caucus a third (district moves northwest to encompass all of St. Charles).   

It will be quite difficult to placate all three of these power centers. It may not even be possible to satisfy two of them.

And in some respects, the 2nd district is actually the easier conundrum because none of the legislators jockeying around it will run for the seat next year. 

New lines of the neighboring 4th and 7th will attract even more urgent attention from Rep. Walsh and Sen. Brattin (both declared candidates for the 4th) and Sens. Moon and Burlison (declared candidates for the 7th).

Also, remember that a) each of those members has factions of ideological allies and personal friends among their colleagues, and b) all three senators have several representatives whose districts lie in their jurisdiction, and thus, whose quickest path to the Senate is a vacancy instead of waiting 4 to 6 more years for the seat to open up.

It’s not hard to imagine how all of the ripple effects could form a tsunami. 

Moreover, an array of policy issues related to 2022 or 2024 races could generate dissension. 

Does Sen. Moon block Sen. Burlison’s bills, or vice versa? Does Sen. Schatz try to weaponize issues against his U.S. Senate campaign opponents, such as, say, a symbolic effort to overturn unpopular federal mandates (i.e., Real ID) that he might claim U.S. Reps. Billy Long and Vicky Hartzler failed to reverse? 

In the never-ending fight to pass a constitutionally permissible voter ID law, how many 2024 Secretary of State candidates try to claim the issue for themselves? And if one appears poised for success, does another scuttle the compromise while aiming to both thwart a future opponent’s legislative accomplishment and posture as purist, the six-minute abs guy of Missouri conservatism?

We’ve only scratched the surface of the ways that electoral ambition could complicate the 2022 session. That’s why some Capitol denizens are pessimistic about passing much of substance.



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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.