Missouri is one of the last battleground states in a nation increasingly divided along partisan lines.
In 2000, George W. Bush defeated Al Gore 50 percent to 47 percent, as Democrats won an open gubernatorial race and a Senate seat by a combined margin of 80,000 votes out of more than 4 million cast. [IMGCAP(1)]
The following cycle Republicans bounced back, retaking the Senate seat they lost two years earlier (by a mere 21,000 votes out of 1.8 million cast), winning control of the state House and expanding their majority by two seats in the state Senate.
The teeter-totter effect of the past two elections sets up 2004 as the potential tiebreaker between Democrats and Republicans, each hoping to gain the upper hand in the decade to come.
Gov. Bob Holden (D) faces a primary challenge from state Auditor Claire McCaskill, and the eventual nominee will face Secretary of State Matt Blunt (R) next November. Blunt’s father, Roy, is currently Majority Whip in the House.
Sen. Kit Bond’s (R) bid for a fourth term will be opposed by state Treasurer Nancy Farmer (D).
Leaders in both state parties expressed optimism about their chances in 2004.
“I am trying to keep folks from getting overly optimistic,” said John Hancock, former executive director of the Missouri Republican Party. “In 2004, we have a historically unprecedented opportunity to take control of state government for the first time ever.”
Missouri Democratic Party Executive Director Jim Kottmayer agreed that the
2004 election presents a “historic opportunity” — but for Democrats.
“We are uniquely positioned to help dictate the outcome of this presidential election,” he said.
Despite the energy surrounding the statewide contests next year, the outlook for the Congressional delegation is much more placid.
Much of the action is centered on the open-seat contest to replace Rep. Richard Gephardt (D) in the 3rd district.
Democrats have a multicandidate primary under way with state Sen. Steve Stoll and state Rep. Russ Carnahan, the son of the late Gov. Mel Carnahan and former Sen. Jean Carnahan, given the upper hand.
On the Republican side, up-and-coming former state Rep. Zane Yates (R) is the preferred nominee although perennial candidate Bill Federer is also running.
Given the district’s demographics, the eventual Democratic nominee has a major edge.
The two major battlegrounds over the next few cycles are likely to be Rep. Ike Skelton’s (D) 4th district and Rep. Sam Graves’ (R) 6th district.
Skelton, 71, is in his 14th term and is regularly mentioned as a retirement possibility.
Although Republicans acknowledge they cannot beat the longtime Democratic incumbent, they believe the seat will be theirs when he does decide to leave. The largely rural 4th district, which takes in much of central and western Missouri, continues to trend Republican on the federal level, as Bush would have won a 19-point victory in 2000.
The Republican heir apparent in the seat is state Sen. Delbert Scott, who after serving nine terms in the state House is in his first state Senate term.
Scott’s current 28th district takes in much of the territory covered by the 4th, and Republican observers believe he is geographically well-positioned for the race.
Democrats are unwilling to concede the seat, arguing that Gore’s performance is not indicative of the district’s underlying demographics. They also believe that when the seat opens, former state Rep. Jason Klumb will be ready to make a Congressional bid.
Klumb is a former Skelton staffer who is running for an open state Senate seat being vacated by a term-limited Democrat.
In the 6th district, Democrats lost a golden opportunity to hold the seat in 2000 when then-state Sen. Steve Danner, son of retiring Rep. Pat Danner, ran a lackluster campaign and lost to Graves 51 percent to 47 percent.
Democrats failed to recruit a serious challenger to Graves in 2002, and he racked up 63 percent of the vote.
The strongest potential Democratic candidate is state Rep. Phil Willoughby, who is running for the state Senate in 2004.
Willoughby will not run next year against Graves but could be a candidate in 2006 or 2008, knowledgeable sources indicated. He was first elected to the state House in 2000.
Democrats believe that Willoughby’s base in Clay County (Kansas City), the population center of the district, could give him the upper hand against Graves, who is from the northern, more rural portion.
The only other seat in play for both parties in the near future is Rep. Kenny Hulshof’s (R) 9th district, which he has held since 1996.
Hulshof defeated then-Rep. Harold Volkmer (D) to win the northeastern Missouri seat and has held it with surprising ease since then.
He announced that he would run for governor in 2004 after winning re-election in 2002, but dropped out of the race earlier this year after his father died.
In the event Blunt loses in 2004, Hulshof is seen as the odds-on favorite for the 2008 GOP gubernatorial nomination.
On its face, the district, which takes in much of the area known as “Little Dixie,” is one of the most competitive in the state. Historically Democratic, it has trended Republican in recent years. Bush would have won 55 percent of the vote in 2000.
The leading GOP candidate when Hulshof departs is state Sen. John Cauthorn, a farmer by trade.
Cauthorn’s entrance into the Senate — winning a 2001 special election for the seat of Lt. Gov. Joe Maxwell (D) — handed Republicans control of the body for the first time in 52 years. He won election to a full term in 2002 with 54 percent.
Democrats’ first choice for the seat is state Senate Minority Leader Ken Jacob, who is running for lieutenant governor. Jacob served in the state House from 1982 to 1996 when he won his current post in a contentious Democratic primary scrum.
Another candidate mentioned for the 9th is state Rep. Wes Shoemyer, a family farmer whom Democrats tout as a rural populist.