Missouri general elections used to matter. Now primaries reign — and extremists have the edge

August 14, 2023 5:55 am

Republicans are likely to see primaries for every statewide office, whereas Democrats are struggling to recruit even a single candidate for some races (Getty Images).

For a generation, Missouri politicians who played between the 40-yard lines reigned supreme.

From the 1980s through the mid-2010s, in race after race, center-right Republicans like Jack Danforth, Kit Bond and Roy Blunt were elected to the U.S. senate, and John Ashcroft and Matt Blunt captured the governor’s mansion.  

After Ashcroft veered further right in the late 1990s (to position himself for a potential 2000 presidential candidacy that was snuffed out when then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush locked up key early support), he ended up losing to a posthumous Gov. Mel Carnahan.

Moderate Democrats also found substantial statewide success in the era, from pro-life Tom Eagleton to pro-death penalty Carnahan; from ex-prosecutor Claire McCaskill to party label-free Jay Nixon. This followed a mid-century era from World War II through the late 1960s during which Missouri elected a steady stream of moderate, rural Democratic governors hailing from towns like Maysville, Sedalia, Charleston and Kennett, and sporting backgrounds in the military or law enforcement (as prosecutors). 

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Gov. Bob Holden foundered and lost his primary when Republicans who controlled the legislature boxed him in, forcing some unpopular vetoes that helped them paint him as a lefty. Democrats of this era who were seen as more liberal, from Harriet Woods through Holden through Susan Montee, struggled to maintain statewide success.

The competitiveness of statewide politics forced both parties to discipline themselves and (usually) nominate candidates closer to the political 50-yard line. When parties indulged their extremist wings, savvy centrist opponents made them pay — and sometimes even legitimately helped lead the other side astray.

When Democrats dominated state politics, they were accustomed to statewide primaries up and down the ballot. And because the general elections were still competitive, primaries favored moderate candidates. 

Republicans occasionally had hard-fought primaries, but the party infrastructure was less developed due to Democratic dominance for most of the 20th century. 

As Republicans gathered statewide strength primarily by flipping rural and exurban areas, they saw increasingly frequent primaries, and over time, the nomination became the prize as Democrats faltered and the general election became less competitive.

Conversely, Democrats are finding it easier to build consensus around nominees, primarily due to the statewide electoral disadvantage that renders their nomination less valuable.

The 2024 cycle appears to represent the culmination of this decades-long trend: Republicans are likely to see primaries for every statewide office, whereas Democrats are struggling to recruit even a single candidate for some races.

Successful statewide pols often ran towards the wing in the primary before drifting back towards the middle for the general. In 2022, we saw Sen. Eric Schmitt buck that trend, clearly making the calculation that no such pivot was necessary due to statewide Republican hegemony. 

Despite Democratic dominance from WWII through the early 1970s, the party of that era didn’t pick extremists. Rank-and-file Missouri Democrats — like Democrats in all southern and border states — spanned basically the entire ideological spectrum, from conservative yellow-dog Democrats still angry at Lincoln for prosecuting the “War of Northern Aggression” to pro-civil rights reformers like Gov. Jim Blair. 


Due to the mid-century Missouri Democratic Party’s ideological and geographic diversity, candidates from the party’s far left could not win statewide. 

A major difference between modern-day Republican rule and mid-century Democratic dominance is that today’s GOP candidates are not constrained by nearly as ideologically diverse a coalition — they can run aggressively right without alienating a significant portion of their party coalition.   

Missouri has thus shifted from a state in which most of the significant action in statewide politics came in Democratic primaries (the 1950s and 60s) to one in which the most important action came in general elections (the 1970s through 2010s) to one in which in most consequential action comes in Republican primaries.

This advanced stage in the evolution of the Missouri Republican Party has many implications, but there are three main takeaways:

  1. The generation-long trend of successful statewide officials generally operating within the 40-yard lines of American politics is over (see, for instance, U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley);
  2. Republicans will likely win statewide general elections for the foreseeable future except in extraordinary scenarios (more on this later); and
  3. Republicans will likely continue fragmenting as a party into two distinct wings — a mainstream conservative wing and an uncompromisingly conservative wing.

The last several legislative sessions have seen a deepening schism of Missouri Senate Republicans into two distinct factions. 

That continuing rift is but one factor leading to hotly contested statewide primaries, led by the looming three-way brawl for governor among Lt. Gov. Mike Kehoe, Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft and state Sen. Bill Eigel.

Other external factors include term limits, which force legislators who want to remain in public life to seek higher office in fairly short order; and the consultant class, who need seven-figure statewide spends to offset the high-volume, low-margin work of legislative races and help them continue living in the style to which they’ve become accustomed.

A final factor likely to exacerbate tensions within the Missouri Republican Party is the 2024 presidential primary. It is no ordinary contest. The national Republican Party faces a reckoning, with nearly every major candidate not named Trump arguing that the former president either cannot win a general election or is unfit to serve.

While it is typical for primary candidates of either party to draw sharp contrasts on issue or even on character, it is extraordinary for candidates en masse to call their party’s frontrunner unfit to serve or a certain general election loser. 

Yet nearly all the candidates outside Trump who have qualified to appear in this month’s first debate – former Vice President Mike Pence, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie – appear pot-committed on these counts. 

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In the wake of recent events, some current and aspiring statewide officials felt compelled to express their allegiance to Trump by attacking special prosecutor Jack Smith’s indictments. Others have remained silent, quietly wishing for Trump to leave the stage.

Given the way in which Trump is expected to divide the primary electorate into two camps, some of the Missouri primaries may divide along similar lines, to unpredictable effect.


For instance, there is a chance that Trump will be convicted and even sentenced before the election. Such a watershed event would almost require candidates around the country to take sides, and Missouri would be no exception. This could further deepen extant intra-party ruptures — especially if Trump is not the Republican Party nominee and his diehard voters decide to stay home (or support 3rd party candidates).

Would I, a Democrat, like for such a scenario to create openings for Missouri Democratic victories up and down the statewide ballot? Sure.

Is it likely? Nah.

It does suggest, however, that even as triumphant Missouri Republicans hold every statewide post and legislative supermajorities, the growing pains and internal tensions that accompany political dominance are just beginning.  

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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.