Jess Piper embraces TikTok politics in bid to break GOP stranglehold on Missouri Legislature seat


Jess Piper. // Illustration by Cassondra Jones

Jess Piper is a social media sensation, a fundraising machine, and the darling of Democrats in Missouri and beyond.

But when we meet at a Starbucks on Main Street in Maryville, Missouri the morning of Aug. 3, Piper has the look of somebody coming off of a bad night.

She tells me she spent hours the previous evening obsessively refreshing the Missouri Secretary of State’s website as the returns from the Aug. 2 primary election rolled in.

Piper was unopposed in her bid to become the Democratic nominee for an open seat in the Missouri House, but she wanted a good showing. Enough to give her some momentum going into the general election in a district where a Democrat hasn’t won a State House seat in 30 years.

Alas, the Democratic votes capped at 1,094. Jeff Farnan, who will be Piper’s Republican opponent, racked up 3,338 votes in his race against four other candidates.

Piper’s campaign manager, Jessica Gracey, tried to provide reassurance. Most of the action in Missouri was in the Republican primary, she noted, so voters requested the GOP ballot. Election night in November will be different, promised Gracey, an associate professor of political science at Northwest Missouri State University in Maryville.

Piper moved on to searching the internet for articles about how Democrats can win in rural areas.

This turned out to be as agitating as watching for votes.

“They’re all written by people who aren’t rural,” Piper says. “They’re all like, ‘Just listen to voters. Don’t tell them they vote against their own interests.’ Of course I’m not going to tell someone they vote against their interests.”

Piper points out that no Democrat has mounted a serious race for the state legislative seat in her district for years. So it’s not like voters have had a chance to evaluate who best represents their interests. 

It was 3 a.m. when she finally popped a Tylenol and drifted off to sleep, still baffled over the conventional wisdom for blue candidates trying to win over a red country.

“Don’t disparage people. Don’t be an elitist,” Piper says. “How can I be an elitist? I live this life. This is who I am.”

A dirt road Democrat

In 2016, Piper was a wife, a mom, and a high school English teacher living in a century-old farmhouse in tiny Hopkins, Missouri, who worried about paying bills and voted for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump.

Today she’s a 46-year-old celebrated “dirt road Democrat”—the new label for Democrats trying to make inroads in rural areas.

She’s invited to speak at political functions around Missouri. Candidates from all over contact her for advice. People across the country send her money and wish her luck.

Actually, they send a large sum of money. Thanks to her outsized social media presence, Piper has raised $177,244 so far for her House race, mostly small donations. Farnan, her opponent, has raised $64,277. The five Republicans who entered the primary raised a combined total of $108,353.

Piper is aware that people will be watching what happens in her sparsely populated House district in the northwest Missouri corner. 

“What I’m doing is twofold,” she says. “I want to be a state representative. I want to represent my community. But I also want this message out—that we are here. There are people like me here, lots of us. I feel like if this all begins and ends with me, it doesn’t mean anything.”

Speaking truth by TikTok

Soon after Trump was elected, a teacher in Maryville started calling out the Missouri legislature in an endless stream of spot-on tweets.

Piper blisters lawmakers over Missouri’s abysmal investment in its public schools (50th in the nation in teacher pay, 49th in educational funding). She blasts Republicans for their fidelity to gun ownership while the state has the nation’s fourth highest incidence of deaths by firearms. 

She tweets relentlessly about Missouri’s health care failures and warns that the state’s near-total ban on abortion will harm women and families.

Phone Detail

Jess Piper’s social media. // Illustration by Cassondra Jones

Piper’s Twitter following is well over 36,000. But it pales in comparison to her TikTok universe, where she has more than 170,000 followers.

Years of engaging students in classrooms, it seems, is ideal TikTok training. Piper posts from her car, her yard, and her home. Often, she’ll wake up in the morning, think of something to say, and post it online, sans makeup, hair mussed and completely real. Her videos are funny and fearless.

With every social media post, Piper sends a message to America’s heartland, says Jessica Podhola, president of the Greater Kansas City Coalition of Labor Union Women.

“Jess has captured such a following and audience because there are thousands and thousands of progressive rural voters not only in Missouri but in Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas. They’re everywhere,” Podhola says.

“Her willingness to call out people in power has electrified a huge following of people who would never, ever pay attention to northwest Missouri.”

On Nov. 22, 2020, Piper announced on her social media channels that she was running for Missouri House District 1, an elected office last won by a Democrat in 1990. 

“I’ve been told I can’t win, but I don’t play to lose—ever,” she said on Twitter. “I’m a mom, teacher, rural Missourian, and a fighter. I believe every Missourian deserves representation.”

A hardscrabble childhood

Piper’s identity as a fighter was carved from a hard life. Born in Metairie, Louisiana, to teenage parents who didn’t stay together, she spent much of her childhood moving about the south with her dad and younger sister as he struggled to hold a job.

“I know what it’s like to be hungry,” Piper says. “I know what it’s like to be dismissed because you’re dirty.” 

She tells a story about getting kicked out of a Brownie troop with her sister because they showed up without underwear. As a teacher, she protected kids who came to school unshowered and in unwashed clothes.

“I understand shame,” she says. “I understand what people go through and I don’t think they should have to go through that. And I don’t like bullies.”

In third grade, Jess went to live with her mother on a dairy farm in Oklahoma. She attended school on a Native American reservation. “I think I was the only blond-haired kid there,” she says.

Piper finished high school in Ozark, Arkansas. She married at age 18, gave birth to two children, and earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English and education from the University of Arkansas.

In 2008, Piper’s then-husband got a job working as a contractor at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. The family moved to the Kansas City area.

That marriage ended and Piper met and married Dustin Piper, a divorced dad from King City, Missouri. They moved to Maryville so that one of their sons, a talented football player, could attend high school there and get noticed by coaches at Northwest Missouri State University. He ended up with a scholarship. Between them, Jess and Dustin now have five children and three grandkids.

Through all these moves, Piper taught at public schools. Her eight years at Maryville High School, teaching American literature, were the best, she says. She used literature and poetry to tell her students the story of America, including its history of slavery. 

“Not one of them ever said, ‘Oh, I’m embarrassed to be white,’” she says. “They were like, ‘Oh my God, I didn’t know and now I want to do better.’”

Some adults were less thrilled. People called her principal and superintendent, demanding that she be fired. It didn’t help when, during the pandemic, Piper showed up on a TV newscast taking part in an NEA rally for COVID mitigation measures in schools. 

Piper was protected by tenure, but her husband, who taught at an alternative school in the same district, was not. In a move that she thinks was retaliation for her outspoken positions, he was told his services were no longer needed.

In February 2021, Piper gave notice that she was leaving her job. She was worried about contracting COVID and wanted to keep her elementary-age daughter at home for the same reason. Also, she was seething over teacher pay in Missouri. With 16 years’ experience and a master’s degree, her take-home pay was $2,200 a month, she says.

And there was something else. Piper had voted in 2020 and taken notice of her choices in the race for state representative. The incumbent House member was on the ballot seeking a fourth term. The line where a Democrat’s name should have appeared was empty.

Around that time, Piper decided to run for office.

The wrath to come 

Piper’s GOP opponent, Jeff Farnan, is a cattle rancher, an optician, and a school board member of the Jefferson C-123 School District.

“He’s a very nice man,” Piper claims. She says she bought a pair of glasses from his Maryville optical business, the Spec Shoppe.

Farnan, who does seem congenial, tells me in a phone call that he’s running to protect the future for his grandchildren. 

“I just wonder, you know, what their life is going to be like in 20 or 30 years,” he says. “If they are going to have the same rights and liberties that we do now, or are people going to come in and, you know, take away their gun rights and force them to eat plant-based hamburger. That’s why I’m running.”

Farnan says he pretty much exhausted his campaign money on the primary, so he’ll have to work on fundraising. But he doesn’t sound too worried about his race.

“I think I pretty much have the advantage, with this being a Republican community,” he says. “I don’t know that she represents the majority of people in the district.” 

Farnan says he is “definitely pro-life” and “will not support any changes to the Second Amendment.” 

“And then I just feel like I have good Christian values,” he says. “I value my family. I value my church. I value my neighbors.”

I ask if he thinks Piper doesn’t have good Christian values. “No, I’m not saying that,” he says. “I don’t know her. I don’t know what her faith is. I don’t want to say anything disparaging about her.”

Oh, but others will do that for him. 

Northwest Missouri is the political fiefdom of U.S. Congressman Sam Graves, of political mastermind Jeff Roe and his Axiom Strategies firm, and of prolific political donor Stan Herzog, who died in 2019 but left in place an apparatus to support candidates. 

These are seasoned political actors who play rough and who locked down every state office in northwest Missouri for Republicans years ago. They are not about to concede a seat to an outspoken English teacher.

“She’s going to get attacked and they’re going to go after her,” says Doug Gray, a Democratic political consultant with deep roots in northwest Missouri. 

He points out, though, that Piper will have resources to counter attacks and get her message out.

“Jess is doing what Democrats talk about all the time,” he says. “People need to step up and do the hard work. She’s created energy. I don’t think anyone expects miracles, but she’s saying what I feel.”

Taking the message to the doorstep

The message Piper wants to send to her constituents is simple. Republicans have had a supermajority in the Missouri legislature for two decades, she says, and life for people in rural Missouri keeps getting worse. Roads are crumbling. Schools are going to four-day weeks. Hospitals and family farms are disappearing. It’s time for change.

But how to get that message across in a district where residents are suspicious of Democrats and antagonistic to the progressive positions that Piper unapologetically puts out there?

Gray says the best way to reach voters’ hearts and minds is on their doorsteps. “You can actually have honest conversations there,” he says. 

Volunteers have already offered to come to northwest Missouri and knock on doors on Piper’s behalf. Some students at Northwest Missouri State University have indicated a willingness to get involved.  

“She has the resources to reach every voter in the district as many times as she wants,” Podhola says.

Piper loves the fact that she’s outraised all of her Republican opponents. But with resources come expectations, and with expectations comes a burden.

“I have people tell me all day long, ‘We believe in you,’” she says. “But if I can’t do it, it’s awful. I know someone always loses. That’s how it works. But it’s hard when people put their hope in you.”

For the moment, Democrats seem heartened by the fact that she’s trying. 

“Democrats did not lose outstate Missouri overnight,” Podhola says. “And it’s going to take a concerted effort to take some of that back. But we’ll never take anything back if we don’t have people willing to run for office and do the hard work.”

For Podhola, Piper is the ideal candidate—authentic, tenacious and smart. 

“She puts it all on the line,” Podhola says. “It doesn’t surprise me that the toughest candidate in Missouri on the ground right now, putting in the work, speaking truth to power, is a teacher named Jessica.” 

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