ST. LOUIS– After she stunned the Missouri political establishment with a primary upset over U.S. Rep. Lacy Clay in her second attempt, Cori Bush didn’t need much, if any help from national Democratic Party forces to win the 2020 general election. She carried almost 80 % of the vote in a heavily Democratic district.
Barring unforeseen circumstances, she may not need that support again next month when she faces Republican Andrew Jones, Jr. and Libertarian George Zsidisin.
Just two years after she rose to political prominence without national party investment or support, she’s found herself sometimes far outside her own district, helping other candidates.
“While personally I am still a candidate, my name is still on the ballot but because I understand that I have a little bit of room to be able to help other folks,” she said to a chuckling audience of state legislative candidates and others last weekend in St. Charles. “It makes more sense to go out and do what I can to help other folks,” she told the crowd, part of a statewide tour her campaign sponsored to rally candidates behind abortion rights. The tour ended Monday night in St. Louis.
You won’t find any of the eight congressional districts touching parts of the greater St. Louis area in Missouri and Illinois on lists of “races to watch” from national pundits. The non-partisan Cook Political Report calls only one of them even “competitive”, the contest for the new open 13th congressional district seat which touches parts of St. Clair County that does have the attention of both national parties. Former Biden and Pritzker administration official Nikki Budzinski, a Democrat, faces Republican Regan Deering, a small business owner and granddaughter of former Archer Daniels Midland CEO Dwayne Andreas. It’s a contest that Cook says leans toward the Democrats.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee confirmed to Spectrum News last week that it canceled ad buys in the district’s biggest media markets, including St. Louis for this week, citing Budzinski’s own financial strength among other factors as the DCCC looks to “reallocate resources as we fight for every competitive seat on our path to holding the House majority.”
Elsewhere in the Metro East, Democrats used redistricting to draw U.S. Rep. Mary Miller and Rodney Davis into a member-member Republican primary for the state’s 15th congressional district. Miller won the bruising race and is now an overwhelming favorite in November against Democrat Paul Lange.
The other Metro East incumbent, Republican U.S. Rep. Mike Bost (IL-12), is a heavy favorite over Democrat Chip Markel, a Navy veteran and former Department of Corrections employee who told Spectrum News that he’s heard talk that the seat is unwinnable. In a way, the lack of national support could be liberating even as he admits he’s on his own.
“We've received a bunch of labor endorsements, which I'm very proud of. I will always be pro-labor, that's where I come from, but to say that I'm gonna owe Nancy Pelosi or I'm gonna owe the DCCC or I'm gonna owe whoever, I don't owe anybody anything. The only thing I owe is my doing my job for the people of this district,” Markel said.
In Missouri, after a push by some Republicans to create a map that could have favored GOP candidates for Congress by a 7-1 ratio, a “6-2” map emerged late in the legislative session, with the new 2nd district seat, now held by U.S. Rep. Ann Wagner R-Ballwin, seen as the most competitive.
State Rep. Trish Gunby, a West St. Louis County Democrat who flipped a statehouse seat once, is trying to do it in Congress, this time against Wagner. But soon after she won the August primary, Gunby noted on social media that “the cavalry isn’t coming,” referring to groups like the DCCC and the national party apparatus. Following a recent town hall meeting she said the cavalry still wasn’t coming, and that outside groups have given up on the race.
“I think national groups that tend to look for areas where perhaps there's more of purple mix of voters, and certainly here in this state it's very clear if you look at a map, rural is more red and urban is more blue, and they won a lot, and there a majority and so as a Democrat, there are many national groups that have said we just don't know if we're gonna play in Missouri,” Gunby said.
“The cavalry is not coming for her and to be honest, I'm a Democrat, I wouldn't come for her either,” said Saint Louis University Political Science Professor Ken Warren. Wagner, he said, “is the weakest incumbent in Missouri but that's because her district has never been ideal, totally ideal for her, it's certainly great for her, but it's not ideal like most of the other districts, well all the other districts in Missouri.”
“They're not going to waste money on candidates who cannot win, that's just cost ineffective for the Democratic party to do it, and Republicans do the same thing,” Warren said.
Gunby believes the district is more of a 50-50 mix and that the additions of Franklin and Warren County, which Wagner hasn’t represented before, can negate some of Wagner’s built-in name recognition.
“I can't wait for those groups to change their mind on the state of Missouri. I have a finite amount of time to run, and so I have to do what I believe is best, and spread that message without perhaps the support of other national groups. I'm the candidate. I'm the party, and I'm not waiting for anybody to come and save us,” Gunby said.
In the third district, which in the St. Louis area includes parts of St. Charles County and Jefferson County, Democrat Bethany Mann, a Brentwood chemist, is challenging Republican incumbent Blaine Luetkemeyer. She was at Cori Bush’s St. Charles event and acknowledged other Democratic priority races, including the U.S. Senate and a push to cut into the GOP supermajority in the Missouri House.
“It does leave us congressional candidates kind of out on a bit of an island,” she said.
In the new 6th district, which now stretches across Northern Missouri and into Lincoln County in the St. Louis area, incumbent Republican Sam Graves faces Kansas City area teacher Henry Martin, an Army and National Guard veteran. According to the most recent campaign finance data on file with the Federal Election Commission, Graves had more than $1 million more cash on hand than the Democrat Martin, who lost to Graves in 2018.
Martin took to social media Wednesday to lament the lack of interest from the party.
“Why is it that I have presented to party leaders that we have a winnable race here in Missouri's 6th and they have yet to offer a single ounce of assistance? I am 100% grateful to the grassroots support I have earned through my efforts and message,” he said on Twitter.
To the south, 8th District U.S. Rep. Jason Smith has reportedly focused his attention on potentially chairing the powerful House Ways and Means Committee in the event Republicans retake the House in November, instead of focusing on his Democratic opponent, Randi McCallian.
As SLU's Ken Warren pointed out, both parties have candidates who are massive favorites or underdogs, depending on a district’s demographics and campaign funds. There are, after all, 435 seats in the House, and they don’t get equal attention.
It’s a reality that Republican Andrew Jones, Jr., a utility executive, is trying to fight, going up against Bush. He’s trying to become the first member of the GOP to represent even a portion of the city of St. Louis since Claude Bakewell did it in two stints between 1947 and 1953.
He told Spectrum News Thursday night at a St. Ann town hall meeting he’s chosen to channel his frustration over the lack of national support.
“It gives you energy if you apply it in a certain way, and certainly what we try to do is when we hear no's or we're hearing about delays on getting certain levels of support, we just leverage that and keep moving forward because we have a mission to accomplish and that's exactly what we're focused on. Setbacks don't bother us, we just keep chugging along, because we have a little small group of people who are working extremely hard,” he said.