Spencer Toder, a Democrat running for Missouri’s open U.S. Senate seat, speaks with residents at the St. Louis PrideFest on June 25, 2022 (Tessa Weinberg/Missouri Independent).
His name tag said he was a candidate for U.S. Senate, but you wouldn’t have guessed Spencer Toder was running for anything.
As he made his way through the Black Wall Street 314 Festival in Wellston Loop in St. Louis last month, Toder spent nearly all his time asking questions instead of asking for votes.
“I was just hoping to hear more about what you guys are doing,” Toder said to those manning the tables lined down the street.
It was a welcome invitation to Erickson Smith, clinical director of Hi-Tech Charities. He led Toder from the nonprofit’s booth to its office just steps away to discuss the clinic’s challenges trying to assist opioid users and people experiencing homelessness access resources.
Toder quickly thought of two people who might be able to use the organization’s services. By the time the two had finished talking 15 minutes later, he had shot off an email to connect Smith with another local nonprofit he hoped they could collaborate with. Smith offered to help in return.
“Just keep helping people and make sure they know that they gotta vote,” Toder told Smith, one of the only times in their conversation that he mentioned there’s an election Aug. 2.
It’s become the mantra of Toder’s novel campaign for the Democratic nomination for Missouri’s open U.S. Senate seat: “Doing well by doing good.”
Toder is one of 11 Democratic candidates vying for the Senate seat opening in light of U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt’s retirement, and he has seeded a grassroots campaign for the past 14 months.
A first-time candidate for elected office, the 37-year-old St. Louis County native is committed to running a different kind of campaign. He eschewed traditional campaign tactics and instead poured over $330,000 of his own savings into marshaling volunteers and resources to help over 600 people access the Child Tax Credit portal, assist Missourians signing up for health care under Medicaid expansion and collect supplies for Afghan refugees.
“When I started this process, it wasn’t about me being a senator,” Toder said. “It was about fixing democracy.”
Toder’s background is in real estate and home renovation, and he is also the co-founder and CEO of a medical device start-up, Atrial Innovations, that fills a hole in the heart of a child with a congenital heart defect.
For six months before he entered the race, Toder said he mulled what path was going to lead to achieving the most impact. At the heart of what propelled him to seek elected office was Toder’s now two-and-a-half year old son.
“We’re putting him in a world where he’s going to fight wars over water, and that’s unacceptable,” Toder said. “And we have the solutions. We just don’t have the political willpower.”
Aiming for impact
When Toder first showed his wife his plan to seek higher office, she urged him to define his own metric for success in the face of trying to win over voters in Missouri, a once purple state that has grown increasingly conservative.
“And I said, ‘We’ll judge success by the number of lives we positively impact,’” Toder said.
By adhering to those values each day, Toder believes he won’t have to advertise that he deserves voters’ trust. Instead, he’ll have earned it.
It was a common refrain from numerous voters who Toder came across who said it wasn’t the first time they had spoken with him, having spotted him at events and forums weeks prior.
“I am here for Spencer Toder because he is here for us. 100%. And I have yet to come to an event where I haven’t seen him,” Dee Brush, a Jefferson County resident said at a rally at Planned Parenthood in St. Louis the day Roe v. Wade was overturned and nearly all abortions became illegal in Missouri.
There, Toder handed out campaign signs with “My body. My choice. My vote,” printed on them. The next day, he told Pro-Choice Missouri he would be donating $50,000 worth of services from his new company that aims to better reach voters to help them connect with more people.
“My role is to platform the people who are the most impacted and to make sure that they have the resources,” Toder said.
Lauryn Donovan, a 19-year-old sophomore at Howard University who is working for Toder’s campaign, said she’s seen his willingness to listen firsthand when she suggested he attend a Juneteenth celebration but not take up space by having a table there.
“Being able to just stand back and give Black people the space to celebrate without having to deal with politics…” Donovan said. “I love the fact that he was so open minded, and he listened to me immediately.”
For some who were meeting Toder for the first time, the fact that he puts in the effort to show up and listen up made an impression.
Lance Smith, a 27-year-old St. Louis resident at the Black Wall Street festival, said he hadn’t heard or seen the other leading Democratic candidates, “let alone on the west side of St. Louis on a day that’s a hundred degrees outside.”
“I take it that Spencer has my vote,” Smith said, who was meeting Toder for the first time.
But Toder also still has minds to convince. Multiple voters said they were between Toder and Lucas Kunce, a former Marine vying for the Democratic nomination. At an event that same day, one woman wanted to know: What sets him apart from Kunce?
“I do get the question a lot,” Toder said in an interview after. “You and Lucas are both white men. You’re both in your thirties. What is the big difference?”
Trailing in individual donations and public polls to his two main Democratic rivals — Kunce and Trudy Busch Valentine — Toder has been excluded from scheduled debates and has struggled to generate much attention to his campaign in the mainstream media.
“We’ve created a self-fulfilling prophecy where people think that money is the only thing that matters,” Toder said. “And so the media follows who’s raising the most money.”
Rather than pumping hundreds of thousands of dollars into television ads, Toder said he believes in pouring funding into the community, and getting out and talking to voters rather than sitting on the phone cold-calling potential donors.
It’s at events like the St. Louis PrideFest where voters peppered Toder with questions about his views.
Toder believes guns need to be registered and stored in a safe, owners need to have permits to use them and assault rifles should be bought back and banned. Toder said he believes red flag laws can be concerning but necessary, and ultimately pointed to strategies that he believes are more successful, like instituting waiting periods, violent history checks and raising the minimum age to purchase to 21.
“It shouldn’t be harder to get a driver’s license than it is to buy a gun,” Toder said. “Just plain and simple.”
Beyond the headline-grabbing mass shootings, to address public safety Toder touts on his platform that “instead of defunding police, we must proactively refund communities.”
By that, Toder said he means looking at public safety holistically and investing in a social safety net that increases funding for mental health, shelter for the unhoused, education and meeting people’s basic needs.
He supports codifying Roe v. Wade and the right to an abortion into federal law and wants to see Medicare for All passed, with contraception and in-vitro fertilization covered under it. He also proposed breaking up monopolies to address supply chain issues and incentivizing renewable energy and solar equipment to stave off the effects of climate change.
And key to many of his goals would be abolishing the filibuster in order to pass voting rights legislation, creating more competitive districts that aren’t gerrymandered that will lead to more widely-supported ideas, “instead of focusing on ideas that only a minority of people support, who tend to be in our state extremist at times.”
“So we’re not going to have a functioning democracy if we can’t find a way to abolish the filibuster,” Toder said, “and taking this specific seat, takes a red seat and flips it blue.”
Building the Democratic party long-term
At his family’s farm in Franklin County, the neighborhood is tight-knit, with residents looking out for each other’s property, fishing and playing poker together. Politics rarely come up, but broader issues do.
When Toder told a neighbor he was running for U.S. Senate, “They said, ‘Why? There’s so many other good Republican candidates running.’”
“And I said, ‘Well, I’m running as a Democrat,’” Toder said, “and they’re like, ‘You’re a what? Well Spencer, you’re gonna be the first Democrat I ever voted for.’”
Toder knows he’ll have to earn the votes of Missourians who skew conservative if he plans to win in the general election. To him, it’s ultimately about drilling down to the values he shares.
“When it comes down to values, we tend to agree,” Toder said. “Everyone wants better health care. They just don’t agree on how we get there. Everyone wants better education, they just don’t necessarily recognize the reason why our education system is so broken. And everyone wants better paying jobs, and they don’t know why we don’t have them when we absolutely deserve them.”
It remains to be seen which party will retain control of the U.S. Senate come November, but Toder said he’s not willing to compromise with Republican lawmakers who voted against voting rights.
“That is anti-Democratic,” Toder said. “And so every single person who votes against voting rights needs to be voted out. They are not living American values, and they’re not representing our communities.”
The best bet at preserving Democracy is increasing the number of Democrats in office, Toder said, which is in part why he’s invested in building the party’s infrastructure in Missouri long-term.
Amid his campaign, Toder has worked to found a new company called Constituent Connection. Its goal is to gather the best quality data and contact info for voters and text bank for a fraction of the cost. He devoted a member of his campaign to recruiting down-ballot candidates and has touted their endorsements. And he’s pledged to donate 10% of the funds he raises in the general election to bolstering the Democratic Party’s infrastructure.
That appeals to Allyn Harris Dault, a 39-year-old attending the St. Louis PrideFest who said Toder understands it takes more than just him winning.
“Despite not having as much fundraising stuff coming in, he’s still actually really connected to people running for school board, people running for state house, and we need that in Missouri,” Harris Dault said. “If we don’t have that, then even if he or anybody on the Democratic side wins this time, we’re still looking at an uphill battle.”
When Toder went home the night Roe v. Wade was overturned, he thought about the overwhelming ways in which he feels society has changed.
To him, running toward the burning building into the flames is what gives him a sense of empowerment and meaning in a world where, “everyone feels like they’re getting hit by a million dodgeballs and they just need to bury their heads in the sand.”
Winning the Senate seat is his fundamental way of achieving that.
“I want my son to know that when the world was on fire and everything was scary,” Toder said, “that I did absolutely everything I could.”
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