After Nixon rules out Senate run, Missouri Democrats look for path to competitiveness

·6 min read

Former Gov. Jay Nixon, one of the biggest names in Missouri Democratic politics, ended an extended period of uncertainty when he announced last week that he won’t run for the U.S. Senate in 2022.

A year before the primary election, Democrats are turning to the question of what’s next — and are unsure of the answer.

Many prominent party members — former Sen. Claire McCaskill, Auditor Nicole Galloway and now Nixon among them — have taken themselves out of consideration ahead of an election in which Republicans may nominate Eric Greitens, the scandal-ridden former governor accused of violent sexual misconduct.

Democrats were always going to face a difficult time in 2022 after losing significant ground over the years in rural areas. Though some party leaders believe that with a dynamic candidate they can be competitive, especially if Greitens is the Republican nominee.

But Nixon’s decision leaves the Democratic field without a candidate that matches the political clout or name recognition of Republicans such as Greitens and Attorney General Eric Schmitt. None of the Democrats in the race have won a statewide or congressional election.

Scott Sifton is a former state senator from Afton. Lucas Kunce is a Marine Corps veteran. Tim Shepard is a Kansas City activist. Spencer Toder is a St. Louis realtor and entrepreneur. Jewel Kelly is an Air Force veteran.

On the Republican side, every candidate has held statewide or federal office except St. Louis attorney Mark McCloskey, who received significant national and state-level attention after brandishing a gun as Black Lives Matter protesters passed by his home last year.

“I will acknowledge that’s an issue and it’s an issue that also means how well-financed you are,” Jean Peters Baker, the Jackson County prosecutor and a past chair of the Missouri Democratic Party, said of candidate name ID.

Peters Baker said she considered running for Senate and rejected the idea because she had already committed her time to Jackson County as an elected official. But she sees a possible advantage for the Democratic candidates, who can devote full attention to their campaigns.

“You can look at the pool of Republicans and see how their time might be divided with politics versus the job that they presently have,” she said.

In interviews on Monday, the Democratic candidates described how they would seek to excite the party’s urban base while courting rural voters, both of which will be needed to win in November 2022. In response to questions about name recognition and support, they touted difficult races they had won or promised an appeal to voters across party lines.

“It’s not Democrat-Republican. It’s not left-right. It’s top-bottom,” Kunce said. “It’s a populist message.”

Public polling on the Democratic race is sparse, but campaign finance reports show Kunce and Sifton leading the Democratic field in the race for donor dollars. Kunce had $910,333 in total receipts last quarter, third only to Republicans Schmitt and Rep. Vicky Hartzler, who represents the state’s 4th Congressional District.

Sifton had $502,091 in total receipts, still putting him ahead of Greitens, who brought in $476,262. Shepard reported $44,966 in total receipts and Toder collected $40,352. Kelly took in $4,884.

“I’ve won a pair of very tough state Senate races, flipping a seat in suburban St. Louis by defeating a Republican incumbent and then holding on to it four years later despite the Trump wave and despite having seven figures spent against me,” Sifton said.

Several months ago, when Sen. Roy Blunt was expected to run for re-election, Democrats viewed winning the seat as a near impossibility. The party’s reach into rural areas has diminished and it was talking about a rebuilding process that could last several elections.

The prospect of Greitens’ candidacy ignited new interest in the race among Democrats, but the party’s experience in recent elections illustrates the difficult task ahead. Just a few years ago, Democrats held the offices of governor, attorney general, auditor, secretary of state and U.S. senator.

Today, Galloway is the party’s only remaining statewide officeholder, but she doesn’t plan to run for re-election after losing the 2020 governor’s race to Republican Gov. Mike Parson.

To win, the eventual Democratic nominee will need to draw excitement and support from liberal voters in cities and suburbs while reducing Republican margins in rural areas. Nixon lost support among liberals after his handling of the Ferguson protests in 2014, but he was seen as potentially able to win back some rural voters in the Senate race.

Shepard, an openly gay activist, said Democrats would only be successful if they double down on progressive, populist economic policies in rural areas.

“Unfortunately, the bench is just gone” for Missouri Democrats, Shepard said. “We need to develop a new bench.”

Shepard and Kelly both shrugged off the lack of name recognition, suggesting their candidacies could help the party rebuild support as it seeks future paths to statewide victories.

“Voters are looking for … a candidate that will bring inclusion,” Kelly said. “So it’s an opportunity.”

Toder’s campaign didn’t respond to an interview request.

Rosetta Okohson, managing partner and CEO of MO Political Consulting, indicated it isn’t clear yet whether the current field will be able to excite the Democratic base.

“I haven’t seen any of the candidates that are there really ignite the base in that way, and part of that is it’s too early,” Okohson said.

The next campaign finance report, in October, will shed more light onto whether donors are gaining enthusiasm and candidates are starting to hold more events.

“I think everything is on the table right now,” Okohson said. “We could see two or three more candidates maybe decide to get in. We could see folks decide that they don’t want to do this at all.”

Major names that have been floated include Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas and state Sen. Brian Williams of St. Louis County. A spokeswoman for Lucas, who is in the middle of a fight over whether the city council can exert more budget control over Kansas City police, referred The Star to his earlier comments about the race when asked whether he’s still weighing a candidacy.

Lucas said in early March that he rises each day “thinking about how I can best serve the people of Kansas City and Missouri” and promised “over the next several weeks” to consider whether that is in a statewide position. Twenty-one weeks have now passed.

Democratic Party officials suggested this week they could make inroads with rural voters with the right candidate focused on an economic issue like better-paying jobs or access to health care.

“We think we have a great group of candidates, particularly when you put our candidates up against the sort of clown-car Republican candidates,” said Missouri Democratic Party executive director Randy Dunn.

Dunn pointed to Galloway winning her election in 2018 to keep her statewide auditor’s seat. That was the year Republican Josh Hawley ousted McCaskill for Senate.

“It’s not too far back that we have to look that we had several Democrats elected to statewide office,” Dunn said.

But the exact path forward remains unclear. Party officials insisted it’s too early to say which candidate or message would give them their strongest boost in 2022.

“It’s an ongoing effort,” said Geoff Gerling, executive director of the Jackson County Democratic Committee. “If I knew for sure what message would work, we’d be in a lot better position. That’s why you go directly to the voters and listen first before you talk.”

Kuang reported from Columbia.

Earlier versions of this story incorrectly reported Tim Shepard’s fundraising total. It is $44,966.

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