Has stark polarization between Missouri Republicans and Democrats led to detente?

The continued self-sorting of voters into red and blue enclaves means that there may be just four contested counties left in Missouri

November 2, 2022 9:00 am

For Republicans, it has become more politically advantageous to campaign *against* the state’s two major cities than to campaign *in* them (Getty Images).

The year was 1990. 

St. Louis County Executive H.C. Milford, a Republican and kindly insurance broker who rose to power when his predecessor Gene McNary received a federal appointment, was seeking election to a full term against a hard-charging three-term county prosecutor named George “Buzz” Westfall.

Milford, an accidental county executive who was, by all accounts, an honorable public servant, was not cut out for bare-knuckle campaign politics. 

After 28 consecutive years of Republican control of St. Louis County government, Westfall disposed of Milford handily, and despite a few close calls, Democrats have not since surrendered control.

Enter Mark Mantovani, a successful businessman and perennial candidate for county executive who’s switched from Republican to Democrat and back to Republican again just in the past five years. 

The largely self-financing multimillionaire has sought the office almost continuously for half a decade, perhaps to the chagrin of his heirs. He has all the hunger for hardball politics that, three decades ago, H.C. Milford lacked.

But even someone as politically androgynous as Mantovani seems unlikely to win, and not because of any significant character deficiency. It’s because St. Louis County — a Republican stronghold in the 1970s and 80s, then a key swing county in the 1990s — is now overwhelmingly Democratic.

Two years after that county executive race, in what would turn out to be one of the closest U.S. Senate races in the country that cycle, first-term St. Louis County Councilwoman Geri Rothman-Serot, a Democrat, challenged Republican U.S. Senator Kit Bond. 

In a hard-fought campaign during which she was outspent 4 to 1, Rothman-Serot held Bond to just 51% of the vote, even as Clinton coasted to a double-digit win in the state. The divergent results suggest that if only Democrats had been able to field a U.S. Senate nominee with nearly unlimited ability to self-finance, they would’ve been likely to narrow the 16-point performance gap between their presidential and Senate candidates.

But the year is 2022, and Trudy Busch Valentine and Mark Mantovani would be near-perfect candidates for their respective parties in their respective races… if only we could teleport back a generation.

Busch Valentine, this year’s Democratic nominee for Senate, has the money Rothman-Serot needed to get over the top. Mantovani has the passion for political power that eluded Milford.

Both feel a bit like walking anachronisms today.

That’s why, less than a week from Election Day, both the U.S. Senate race and the county executive race in Missouri’s largest county have struggled to attract serious attention from higher-level funders and strategists.

With Missouri looking solidly red in 2022, there appears to be no serious move to try and put our U.S. Senate race into play. National Democratic strategists are preoccupied with top-tier races in Georgia, Pennsylvania, Arizona and Nevada, with races in Ohio, North Carolina, Florida, and Wisconsin occupying the second tier throughout most of the cycle. 

Missouri is in the third tier of races, and that appears unlikely to change in the final week given the national party’s primary focus on defending currently-held seats.

Similarly, with regard to the county executive’s race, most statewide Republicans appear only semi-engaged, understanding the Trump-era party’s damaged brand in St. Louis County. 

Neither GOP Senate candidate Eric Schmitt nor Auditor candidate Scott Fitzpatrick has campaigned with Mantovani. One Republican official acknowledged the double-edged sword in doing so, telling Mantovani, “I’m glad to help — I can be for ya or against ya, whichever helps more.”

The broader point is that these two would-be marquee races being relatively anticlimactic signals something approaching a detente between the state Republican Party and the state Democratic Party — a partitioning whereby the Republican Party all but cedes St. Louis and Kansas City to Democrats, who essentially cede most of the rest of state’s counties to Republicans.

Moreover, there are signs that after term limits force Senate Majority Leader Caleb Rowden of Columbia out of his seat, Republicans may largely cede left-trending Boone County as well. 

The continued self-sorting of voters into red and blue enclaves — whereby people choose to live in communities of mostly like-minded people – means that there may be just four or so broadly contested counties left in Missouri: Greene, Clay, Platte and St. Charles (along with small sections of Boone County, eastern Jackson County and south St. Louis County).

For Republicans, it has become more politically advantageous to campaign *against* the state’s two major cities than to campaign *in* them.

Some progressives may contend that I’m wrong — that, for instance, Missouri’s most prominent Democrat, U.S. Congresswoman Cori Bush, embarking on a 10-stop statewide tour visiting several swing legislative districts in the state’s interior signals that the party is indeed focused on penetrating the areas between St. Louis and Kansas City proper. 

I would argue the opposite. 

Hosting the state’s most polarizing Democrat — recent Missouri Scout polling had Bush upside-down statewide, with just a 20% favorable rating — for battleground district campaign events is not an optimal strategy to win swing seats. 

Indeed, Republicans are seeing the same numbers in their polling, which is why Bush’s signature “Defund the Police” vow has appeared in ads across the state and country, as Republicans first telegraphed would happen last year. 

Predictably, Democratic legislative candidates in districts around the state are being tied to Bush in mailers and digital advertising. So is Busch Valentine. 

It is not that Bush’s message on reproductive rights post-Dobbs is ineffective. The recent Kansas referendum clearly reveals its potential. It’s that separating “Cori Bush” from “Defund the Police” in the minds of most voters is like trying to separate “peanut butter” from “jelly.”

Others might argue that Jess Piper’s energetic state House campaign in northwest Missouri, which has already raised over a quarter million dollars this cycle, is another counterexample showing Democrats’ commitment to branching out beyond the two major metros. 

That’s an extraordinary fundraising haul for any rural House candidate, especially a Democrat in an un-winnable district. Piper has leveraged all available social media tools by tweeting, Tik Tok-ing and Instagramming her way to raise more than any other Democratic House candidate.

In fact, the last two fundraising reports show Piper with more cash on hand than the entire House Democratic Campaign Committee. 

Positioning herself as a #DirtRoadDemocrat, Piper has articulated Democratic ideals and lambasted the Republican supermajority for its policies on guns (opposing red flag laws and ownership restrictions for domestic abusers), abortion (a ban without exceptions for statutory rape or incest), and other issues. 

But, I suspect, instead of deploying a significant portion of her financial haul in large chunks to 4 or 5 swing districts where she could have a decisive impact and help her party gain seats — perhaps even helping position herself to chair the party next cycle — she’ll instead spend it  to close her margin from 30 to perhaps 20 points.

In sum, if this fall feels anticlimactic for longtime Missouri election watchers, that’s because it is. 

Most of the action took place during the primary season. And if current trends — geographic self-sorting of voters leading to Missouri’s political partitioning, leaving just a few competitive counties — continues, it will lead to an eerie quiet in the fall of every even year, in which two state parties more polarized than ever around public policy have reached an odd détente around campaign strategy.

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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.