Sen. Mike Moon, left, Sen.-elect Ben Brown and Sen. Rick Brattin look over a Senate seating chart on Nov. 10, 2022, as they pick spots for the 2023 session. (Rudi Keller/Missouri Independent)
Republican state senators made history Thursday by selecting Sen. Cindy O’Laughlin as majority leader, making her the first woman from either party to hold the second most powerful job in the upper chamber.
O’Laughlin, of Shelbina in northeast Missouri, defeated Sen. Mike Bernskoetter of Jefferson City in a vote held in a closed-door caucus. Current Majority Leader Caleb Rowden of Columbia was selected as the GOP nominee for Senate president pro tem without opposition.
Both O’Laughlin and Rowden said their goal is internal peace within the faction-ridden caucus so members can focus on passing legislation rather than fighting each other.
“Certainly I hope it is better than the last session,” O’Laughlin said to reporters after the caucus meeting. “We all learned from the last session that once things kind of start going the wrong way they can really go the wrong way fast.”
One source of friction, the conservative caucus, disbanded this summer after four years of escalating war with the Republican leadership. O’Laughlin, who joined the group after taking office in 2019, quit the caucus in 2021.
“I felt like after I had been here more than a year, a year and a half, I felt like I understood the issues and the way things worked here, and I wanted to speak for myself,” O’Laughlin said. “It just seemed like the thing to do.”
Republicans will hold a 24-10 majority in the Senate when new members are sworn in as the session starts in January. That is the same partisan split as in the current chamber, but one reason the conservative caucus disbanded is because candidates it supported won four contested GOP primaries and members said they had succeeded in pushing the chamber to the right.
Rowden will replace Dave Schatz, who is exiting the chamber due to term limits. Rowden has two years left on his second term, which may have played a factor in his uncontested election.
He said Sen. Andrew Koenig, R-Manchester, was nominated by a caucus member but declined to contest the election.
Rowden has been majority leader for four years and was often the target of conservative caucus criticism for working too closely with Democrats. The biggest issue splitting Republicans last year was how to draw a map for the state’s seven congressional districts and when the conservative caucus did not prevail, members used parliamentary maneuvers to gum up the Senate.
“The map last year was such an extenuating circumstance that made it 10 times worse than it would have ever have been otherwise,” Rowden said.
The election has given the GOP a new start in the Senate, Rowden said, and those divisions should stay in the past.
“I care more about getting stuff that matters for my kids than I do about getting even or getting revenge on anybody,” Rowden said.
Rowden’s nomination as pro tem must be ratified by the full Senate when the next session begins Jan. 4 but the large GOP majority means his election is assured.
Sen. Bill Eigel of Weldon Spring and a leading member of the now-defunct caucus said he was pleased with the leadership election and the promises made by Rowden and O’Laughlin to seek peace in the GOP.
There were no conditions that must be met to maintain the peace, Eigel said.
“Caleb’s message was getting big Republican things done and that is a great message,” Eigel said.
On the Democratic side of the chamber, Sen. John Rizzo of Independence was selected as minority floor leader for the coming session, with Sen. Doug Beck of Affton as assistant floor leader.
In a news release, Rizzo said Senate Democrats would focus on restoring the right to abortion, public safety and economic issues important to families. He said “the MAGA extremism coming from the Republican Party continues to drive voters away.”
Democrats in the Missouri House also met Thursday, re-electing state Rep. Crystal Quade of Springfield as the minority floor leader.
On Wednesday, House Republicans selected Rep. Jonathan Patterson of Lee’s Summit as majority floor leader and Rep. Mike Henderson of Desloge as nominee to be speaker pro tem. Rep. Dean Plocher, previously majority leader, is the GOP nominee for House speaker.
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