The Blues: What happened to the Missouri Democratic Party?

Stephen Webber is, from just about any angle, a rising star in the Missouri Democratic Party.

Fresh off two tours of duty in Iraq, Webber was first elected to the Missouri House of Representatives in 2008, when he was 25. He went on to serve four terms as a state representative in the Columbia area, earning a degree from the University of Missouri’s law school along the way. As a legislator, he pushed bills aimed at increasing funding for higher education, restricting payday loans, and prohibiting discrimination of LGBT individuals. Webber is sincere, serious, strong-jawed and a capable public speaker — qualities that were on display as he addressed the crowd gathered in early February for the launch of Northland Progress, a new political action group in the Kansas City Northland. 

The room that evening was hungry for a full-throated progressive message, and Webber had brought one. He urged the audience to resist President Donald Trump’s agenda “every day, morning, noon and night until he’s out of office — whether that’s 2017 or 2018 or whenever.” Webber then challenged the crowd to become more engaged in local politics, even to consider running for office. 

“If you’re waiting for somebody to come up and hand you a $20,000 check to run for the Legislature or run for school board, I can tell you from experience: Stop waiting,” Webber said. “It ain’t gonna happen. Get out, organize and do it for yourself.” 

Webber himself could have used a couple extra $20,000 checks from Missouri Democrats in 2016. Termed out of the House, he ran for an open Senate seat in his home district last November — and lost to Caleb Rowden, a former Christian-rock musician without a college degree. 

That Senate district — the 19th — includes Boone County and Cooper County. Boone is home to the University of Missouri, which has historically made it one of the more reliably liberal areas in the state. Webber won only narrowly in Boone — 50 to 49. In more rural Cooper, to the west of Columbia, Webber got clobbered; Rowden took a full 70 percent of the vote there. The trend is evident across the state: Democrats are not just losing in rural counties. They are losing very, very badly, doing worse with every election. 

A young, polished liberal with a military background is a precious gem, particularly in Missouri, and Democrats here are wise enough not to let one drift into the ether. Hence Webber’s post-election appointment as chairman of the Missouri Democratic Party. In his new role, Webber is on a sort of listening tour, driving around the state and gathering information from Democrats at events such as the one held by Northland Progress. 

“We [Democrats] need to get back to winning in areas that we used to win until 2010,” Webber told me. “When I first got to Jeff City, in 2008, there were Democrats representing places like Cass County, the Bootheel, north-central Missouri. Now those reps are all gone. So I think one of the first steps for Democrats is to start showing up again in rural Missouri and let rural voters know we care about those areas.” 

Making inroads among rural voters is far from the only daunting task that lies ahead for Webber and the Missouri Democratic Party. Districts that touch exurbs and suburbs and even the state’s largest cities now regularly vote red. As a result, Republicans in the state now enjoy supermajorities in both bodies of the Legislature and control of the governor’s mansion. Democrats can claim only two officials in statewide posts — U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, who is staring down a scary re-election campaign in 2018, and auditor Nicole Galloway, who was appointed to the job by former Gov. Jay Nixon following the suicide of her elected predecessor, the Republican Tom Schweich. 

Not even boy wonder Jason Kander could wash enough of the blue stink off him in 2016 to claim a victory in Missouri. He’s been cited by President Obama as one of the future leaders of the party, and his national profile is accordingly being fast-tracked before our very eyes — catch him on CNN or Real Time With Bill Maher or on your feed making highly retweetable anti-Trump quips — but the highest office Kander has held so far is Missouri Secretary of State. Kander ran a smart, disciplined, progressive campaign last year and came close-ish to unseating U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt in a bad year for Democrats. But he still lost. 

The impotent state of the Missouri Democratic Party is the result of a vacuum of leadership, vision and money that has darkened over the past decade, according to interviews with more than two dozen current and former state legislators, county committee chairs, recent candidates and other party insiders. There is agreement that external forces — the grip of conservative media in isolated parts of the state, campaign finance laws that allow unlimited outside money to pour into races, the Trump phenomenon — have exacerbated Democrats’ woes in Missouri. But most acknowledge that the state party has been neglected to the point of near-obsolescence. Several candidates with whom I spoke literally laughed out loud when I asked how helpful the state party had been in their recent races. 

“We’re very hopeful about him [Webber] here,” says Cindy Schroer, chairwoman of the Lafayette County Democratic Central Committee, in Lexington. “I think everybody out across the state is rooting for him to turn things around. But he’s got his work cut out for him. You’ve got to understand: This was basically a blue county 10 years ago. Last year no Democrat even challenged the Republican running for state rep. We’ve had no real contacts, or connections with, or directions from, the state party for years and years.” 

The old Hemingway quote about how you go bankrupt — two ways: gradually, and then suddenly — applies. The Missouri Democratic Party stopped showing up for work. It wasn’t paying the utilities. All that happened in November is that Missouri voters made it official and foreclosed on the home and put it out on the street. 

Here are some sobering numbers: In 2006, Missouri Democrats fielded candidates in all but 15 of the state’s 163 House districts. In terms of putting warm bodies in races, they did much better than Republicans, who left 35 House districts lacking a candidate in that year’s election. 

Fast-forward to 2016: Democrats left 55 House seats uncontested, whereas Republicans failed to put up a candidate in only 23 House races. Another way of saying this is that Republicans ran unopposed by Democrats in fully a third of all Missouri House races in 2016. 

Not surprisingly, over these 10 years Missouri Republicans have catapulted to power. They have increased their presence in the House from 92 seats to 117. Democrats — who held a competitive 71 seats in 2006 — are now down to 45 seats. It’s not much better in the Senate, where Democrats have dropped from 13 to 8 members in a decade. With Eric Greitens now installed as governor, Republicans are free to legislate as they please. The best Missouri Democrats can do these days is shout about the worst of the bills that Republicans are putting forward. 

It would be difficult to overstate how powerless the Democratic party is today in Jefferson City. Incredibly, Democrats now hold only one House seat south of Interstate 70 in outstate Missouri — a vast expanse that covers nearly two-thirds of the land in the state. That seat is in Springfield, the third-largest city in Missouri. 

Angela Dowler Pryor, a 49-year-old seventh-generation Southwest Missourian, ran for one of Springfield’s Republican-held House seats in 2016. She’s a perfectly plausible candidate: mother, wife, left a job in the private sector for the world of nonprofits. In recent years, she has worked at Planned Parenthood and as a state-licensed navigator for the Affordable Care Act to help people access health care. 

The district in which Pryor ran, the 134th, is not some preposterously red rural backwater. It includes Missouri State University, a Democrat-friendly zone with a history of high voter turnout. Bernie Sanders held a rally in her district during the primaries, and 4,000 people showed up on 24 hours’ notice. 

But Pryor couldn’t get the Missouri Democratic Party to pick up the phone. 

“I had worked on someone else’s campaign in 2014, so my expectations for them [the state party] were already low,” Pryor says. “But on my race, I had no guidance, no training. I had to fundraise completely on my own. They did zero for me. Anything at all would have helped. They literally did nothing.”

She lost by 20 points. 

At least there was a Democrat on the ticket in the 134th District — hardly a certainty, even in relatively urban Springfield. In 2016, Republicans ran unopposed in one of the area’s seven House districts; in 2014, Republicans had two House races to themselves, and three were uncontested by Democrats in 2012. As recently as the late 1990s, Democrats held five House seats in the Springfield area. No more. 

“The state party has basically imploded, at least as far as I can tell,” Pryor says. “It’s a foregone conclusion these days that you pretty much can’t win in Springfield unless you’re a Republican.” 

In even more conservative parts of the state, such as central Missouri and the Bootheel, Democratic county committees have either closed up shop or are viewed with such derision by locals that information about meetings is conveyed in a near whisper. Candidate recruitment is almost nonexistent. 

Matt Michel, a 27-year-old first-time House candidate in southeast Missouri who ran mostly because nobody else stepped up, says that, in his district, the 153rd, Fox News plays on an endless loop “literally anyplace in public where there is a TV: bars, fast-food restaurants, Chinese restaurants.” He adds: “We don’t tend to hold our events in public because we have to contend with that.” 

Michel, a lawyer in Doniphan, garnered only a quarter of the vote in his race but says he plans to run again in two years, when the incumbent he lost to in 2016 terms out. He’s hopeful that the party infrastructure will have jelled a bit more in the meantime. 

“I feel like the county committees and the state party have really dropped the ball in recent years by not reaching out to new voters,” Michel says. “They relied heavily on those they already knew were in the party. They just call those same people over and over instead of communicating to new people that there are still Democrats here.”

Kyle Garner, 32, challenged a House incumbent in a rural district that includes Sedalia. Garner has some bona fides that might play well in mid-Missouri: He’s a former volunteer firefighter, he did some time in the Air Force, and he’s putting himself through law school at Mizzou. A first-time candidate, Garner was hoping for guidance from the state party: “Like, ‘This is how you fundraise, this is a sample script for a door-knocker’ — things like that,” Garner says. 

Garner had one contact at the state party — Kristen Self, director of campaigns. But she quit halfway through the 2016 cycle, and, Garner says, “We were on our own after that.” He eventually paid out of his own pocket to attend a weekend seminar for progressive candidates held in Columbia by Wellstone, a national organization that provides resources for Democratic politicians. He lost his race by 40 points. 

Would you believe that the Missouri Democratic Party charges its candidates for access to information about voters in their districts? And that, for some candidates — particularly those in rural districts on shoestring budgets — the fee is prohibitively high? 

Believe it.

Across the country, the Democratic Party uses a software system called the Voter Activation Network to track potential voters. VAN is a sort of living document that compiles voter names, phone numbers, addresses — even issues that are important to specific voters — in a database that is updated after every phone call and every door-knock. It allows campaigns to microtarget specific demographics, and supplies canvassers and candidates with information about the political mindset of the people whose doorbells they’re ringing. It can be a powerful tool in campaigns. 

In Missouri, county committees get access to VAN for free, but candidates must pay the state Democratic party $500 if they wish to use it. That may not sound like a lot of money. But consider John Cozort, who ran for a House seat in the 51st District (which includes Marshall and parts of Warrensburg). 

“I didn’t spend more than $500 on my entire campaign,” says Cozort, who is 28 years old and works at a convenience store in Marshall. “So $500 for VAN was not something I could afford.” 

Even with great data, Cozort — or others who didn’t have room in their budgets for VAN, including Michel and D.J. Rash, who ran for state rep in Cass County — were Washington Generals–style long-shot candidates. Still, it’s an obvious strategic failure for the state party not to set aside the VAN fee for its candidates. Even someone with no chance of winning can update the voter file, generating information that would be useful in future statewide elections. 

Perhaps due to such negligence, many candidates I spoke to who did pony up the $500 for VAN found it outdated and not especially useful. 

“Ninety percent of the phone numbers were inaccurate,” says Pryor, the state rep candidate from Springfield. “I attribute that partially to people gravitating away from land lines and toward cell phones. But I also believe it’s because we haven’t had anybody down here campaigning to update the system.” 

Cydney Mayfield, of Boonville, who is fresh off a loss in a race for Cooper County Assessor, used VAN. But she did so, she says, only because Webber, who was campaigning in her district, showed her how. “It wasn’t clear to me how to use it or access it — there were no communications about training or anything like that,” Mayfield says. “Stephen’s campaign came to the rescue and educated me.”

Mayfield has since been named chairwoman of the Missouri Democratic Rural Caucus. She’s been thinking about ways the party can reform itself in rural races, and she believes that training candidates in VAN, and eliminating VAN fees, are obvious first steps. 

“They [the state party] have basically been using it [VAN] as a fundraising tool to pay for party operations,” Mayfield says. “I don’t think that’s the right policy for rural districts like ours.” 

Webber and the executive director of the Missouri Democratic Party, Emily Waggoner, are new to their jobs; both say they’re interested in rethinking the VAN policy. “I anticipate there will be a healthy discussion about it at our upcoming state committee meeting,” Waggoner says. 

A good person to ask about party policy is Roy Temple, who ceded to Webber his position as chairman of the Missouri Democratic Party following the 2016 election. Temple, who also runs GPS Impact, a digital media firm for progressive campaigns, had held the position since 2013. 

“It’s not the state party trying to hustle candidates out of cash,” Temple says of the decision to charge for VAN during his tenure. “It costs money to maintain these voter files. There are multiple layers to the data, and some of it is purchased from commercial vendors. There are a lot of administrative costs to that the state party incurs from all this.” 

Temple continues: “Obviously, in a world of infinite resources, everybody would have millions to spend on direct mail and marketing and these things. But the party has to make decisions about how to pay for an effective voter file, and different eras of party leadership have made different decisions over the years about how to do that.” 

When Temple was chairman, his was an unpaid, part-time position. The same was true of his predecessors Mike Sanders, who chaired from 2012 through 2013 while simultaneously serving as Jackson County Executive; Susan Montee, in 2011; and Craig Hosmer, from 2008 to 2010. 

With Webber in the seat, it’s now a full-time, paid position, a change that several people with whom I spoke suggested should have been made following the sand-shifting elections of 2010, which swept 20 Democratic-held seats out of the Legislature. 

In Platte County — parts of which are within the KC metro — no Democrat has won since 2010; today, the county has zero Democratic representatives in the state Legislature, and Republicans hold every elected position at the county level. 

“The problem is that, once you lose these seats, it’s hard to get them back,” says David Christian, chairman of Platte County Democratic Committee. “There are a lot of independents in our districts, and we could have used resources and attention from the party to find them and turn them out. But we haven’t really been getting that.” 

Many recent Missouri legislators assign blame for the decline of Missouri Dems to the very man who, with his veto, spent the past eight years preventing the worst Republican ideas from becoming law: Jay Nixon. 

Several Democrats expressed disappointment, even bewilderment, that Nixon — a well-liked two-term governor — rarely leveraged his popularity to benefit other candidates. Even Webber, who is otherwise uninterested in pointing fingers, casts subtle shade Nixon’s way. 

“I think it’s a fair critique to say that Nixon was never someone who made the infrastructure of the party a priority,” Webber says. 

Jolie Justus, who served in the Missouri Senate from 2006 to 2014 and is now a Kansas City Councilwoman, is more pointed. 

“I didn’t see any evidence of Jay Nixon fundraising for our Senate candidates while I was in office,” Justus tells me. “It would have been nice to see more leadership from him and his team when it came to both raising money and recruiting candidates.” 

Nixon’s aloof attitude toward his own party is not unprecedented — President Barack Obama was accused, not without reason, of similar party neglect from his national perch — but a little love from Uncle Jay might have helped stem the rapid rise of Missouri’s red tide.  

When Kathleen Sebelius was governor in Kansas, from 2003 to 2009, she was constantly on the phone raising money for candidates, according to Mike Gaughan, a former executive director of the Kansas Democratic Party. 

“She [Sebelius] was certainly active in helping to raise funds for the KDP, and for Democratic candidates up and down the ballot in Kansas,” Gaughan says. “She also mentored young candidates and activists, she built strong relationships with county party leaders, and she helped bring resources into Kansas that helped to improve our campaigns.”

When Mel Carnahan was Missouri’s governor, from 1993 to 2000, he built a candidate-recruitment apparatus called Camp Carnahan, which groomed aspiring Democratic politicians and showed them the ropes — walking lists, voter-identification techniques, fundraising approaches — of running for office. No such operation existed under Nixon. 

“When you have a sitting governor, that’s a powerful thing for the party,” says Joe Carmichael, the Missouri Democratic Party chairman from 1993 to 2004. “It gave somebody like me the luxury of focusing on recruiting and training good candidates, which ultimately is the best way to improve your party’s probability of success. We had a coordinated effort where the governor would raise money for the party and people like me, working with the legislative causes, would disburse the cash to candidates.” 

Carmichael, now a lawyer in the Springfield area, continues: “Looking back, I was there at a good time. My sense is that Republicans are now the ones who have a really good grip on that kind of infrastructure and candidate recruitment in the state. So what we had on our side when I was there is what they’re [Democrats] up against today.”

A political party is, of course, a private entity. Like a corporation, it owes basically nothing to the public. You don’t like it? Start your own party. 

But the United States won’t stop being a two-party nation anytime soon, and one of those factions wants to cut taxes for wealthy people and corporations, dramatically trim social programs that benefit the poor and the middle class, and strip away women’s reproductive rights. The Republicans who openly espouse racist or xenophobic views do so with the implicit approval of their leader, an impulsive authoritarian named Donald Trump, who now happens to sit in the White House.

For liberals, centrists and even those whom we once called moderate Republicans, the Democratic Party is supposed to be a bulwark against the most repulsive parts of the Trump GOP’s agenda. But in Missouri, the party is ill-prepared to push back.

And the real implications of Republican rule are already being felt here. Republicans have been sharpening their axes for years on laws perceived to be unfriendly to corporations, and, less than three months into Greitens’ governorship, the trees are falling: labor unions, via the passage of the right-to-work law; consumer and employee protections, via tort reform. Decisions to raise the minimum wage in Kansas City and St. Louis will be nullified by laws quickly enacted by the Republican-led Legislature. Higher-education funding is slashed in the new budget. A proposed expansion of charter schools in the state will tighten the already cramped budgets of public schools. Greitens, who campaigned on ethics reform and transparency, has formed a secretive nonprofit shadow operation that permits him to solicit unlimited contributions from undisclosed donors. 

That Democrats have failed to defeat these plainly unpopulist policies suggests, among other things, slack-spined messaging on the part of the party. 

“When, during the last election, or even before, did you ever really hear what the heck a Democrat stood for?” wonders Mayfield, the rural caucus chairwoman from Cooper County. 

Mayfield says that, while out knocking on doors, she frequently heard from voters who associated Democrats with transgender bathrooms and the Black Lives Matter movement. They complained that Democrats were focused on identity issues instead of meat-and-potatoes concerns vital to rural voters — “access to good-paying jobs, access to cheaper health care, and community safety,” Mayfield says.  

“If we focus on values instead of issues, that allows us to have a consistent message that works across rural and urban areas,” Mayfield says. “Black Lives Matter or transgender bathrooms as specific issues are very divisive in rural areas. But the values behind why Democrats support those things — equality for all, justice applied regardless of race — are, I believe, values that most Missourians hold.” 

When I spoke to Webber, he was driving to an event in Rolla, hosted by the Phelps County Democratic Committee. He’d been hitting up as many as four Democratic club and committee meetings a week since January, he told me, often in rural areas the state party had ignored for years. He said he’d been heartened by the turnout. 

“Almost every single meeting is having record attendance,” Webber said. “There’s a ton of momentum right now. We just have to make sure we channel that frustration into action by recruiting strong candidates and showing up big in 2018.” 

He said reelecting McCaskill to the U.S. Senate is the No. 1 priority in 2018. Second is making progress in reclaiming legislative seats. But he was quick to manage expectations. 

“I think success in 2018 means picking up some seats and putting ourselves in position to make more substantial gains in 2020 and future years,” Webber said. “Democrats losing in rural Missouri didn’t happen overnight, and it won’t change overnight. But at least now we are focused on building our presence back up in these communities and letting people know Democrats are still here.”

Then Webber cut out. The road to Rolla isn’t lined with cellphone towers. But he hoped his message would ring clear when he arrived. 

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