Saturday's caucuses include an idyllic gathering in Ballwin — and fracas in St. Charles County
Under a flowering Bradford pear in front of the Ballwin Police Department, about 200 Republicans engaged Saturday morning in the fine art of democracy.
The Lafayette Township caucus crowd ended up outside because the group was too big to be accommodated in the scheduled meeting room inside the police department. Blame or credit goes to GOP presidential hopeful Rick Santorum, who stopped by Lafayette and several other caucuses, swelling the expected attendance.
With Santorum’s visit already delaying the 10 a.m. start time, Lafayette Township Republican committeeman Chris Howard decided on the spot to move the caucus outside to the grassy island on the department’s parking lot. Chairs were carried outside as well.
Since the tree’s shade was inadequate under the bright — and somewhat warm — morning sun, some participants retrieved umbrellas from their cars to provide shade while the caucus business ensued.
For the next several hours, the crowd civilly debated and voted on how to choose representatives for the state GOP’s next round in April, when presidential delegates will be awarded.
'It went nuts'
The idyllic scene in Ballwin contrasted sharply with St. Charles County, where a dispute Saturday between GOP organizers and some of the 2,500 caucus-goers erupted into a shouting match. Police were called to the school gym housing the meeting, and the caucus was shut down before any major business had been conducted. Two people were arrested.
"Not even 10 seconds into it, it went nuts," said former state Rep. Joe Smith, a St. Charles County committeeman. The disputes reportedly included disagreements over how to select a caucus chairman, and whether the proceedings could be recorded on video.
(Some people did record the discord. Click here to view a video posted by one attendee.)
State Republican Party chairman David Cole issued a statement in which he lamented the caucus breakdown in St. Charles, and concurred with the decision to shut down the meeting “to protect the safety of all participants.”
Cole said party leaders will decide how to handle an alternate selection process for St. Charles County’s 147 representatives to Round 2.
The fracas threatened to overshadow the general peaceful proceedings at the roughly 120 caucus gatherings Saturday around the state. Cole contended that “record numbers of Republicans turned out,” which party leaders see as a good omen come this fall’s elections in Missouri.
But it could be days, if not weeks, before anyone knows for sure whether Santorum, frontrunner Mitt Romney or insurgents Ron Paul and Newt Gingrich benefited the most from Saturday’s caucuses. Unlike some other states, no concurrent straw poll was conducted to signal which candidate had been most successful in getting out his supporters to the various caucuses.
Romney, who made a campaign stop Saturday night in Collinsville, issued a statement about Missouri's campaign activities. “Ann and I thank the voters who took part in today’s caucuses in Missouri," he said. "I am proud and honored to have earned the support received today..."
'Here's what we need'
St. Louis County — with 317 first-round delegates at stake — had permission to hold 28 township caucuses. The move may have been intended to keep individual crowds to a manageable size and avoid the disruption seen in neighboring St. Charles. (St. Louis County’s decision may have reflected knowledge of its own chaotic caucus history back in 1996, the last time the state GOP used caucuses to dole out delegates. That year, the county had three massive caucus sites, which proved difficult to manage.)
The number of St. Louis County caucuses also provided challenges for the various candidates, with Santorum or Romney forces taking control of different locales.
In Clayton Township, Romney’s allies captured all 14 first-round delegate spots during a caucus in which they heavily outnumbered supporters of Santorum and Paul.
The township takes in portions of Clayton, Ladue, Huntleigh and University City. Romney’s camp had spearheaded a winner-take-all approach in the caucus’ delegation selection.
U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., was among the party leaders on hand at the Clayton Township caucus to promote Romney’s cause. The delegate slate approved by the 134 attendees includes former state House Speaker Catherine Hanaway, a Republican who is re-emerging as a party leader.
Hanaway told the crowd that Romney “is the only one of the candidates who has been a chief executive.”
“And look, here's what we need,’’ she continued. “We need a president who believes what we believe, who has the pen to sign into law the good things the Republicans in the House are passing. And I am confident we're going to win the Senate race in Missouri and then we're going to win a majority in the U.S. Senate."
While embracing Romney, Hanaway made sure that the audience didn’t take her for a moderate. She recounted her combative past taking on then-Gov. Bob Holden, a Democrat who held office from 2001-2005.
“Those of you who know me know that I am a conservative. I’m not a ‘Main Street Republican,’ “ said Hanaway.
'This has been kind of neat'
At Lafayette Township, it was Santorum’s allies who held sway – but they didn’t play hardball.
Santorum addressed the crowd, which packed the meeting room and snaked outside, for about 15 minutes before proceedings got underway. Earlier, he had stopped at Westminster Christian Academy to address would-be caucus participants in Chesterfield Township.
Santorum’s biggest pitch was that he, not Romney, had the true conservative record. Santorum contended that Romney’s selection as the nominee would take off the table the issue of the federal health-care law, dubbed by critics as “Obamacare,” because Romney signed into law a similar system in Massachusetts.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we can’t give the biggest issue away,’’ Santorum said. "If this election is about 'Tweedle Dee' and 'Tweedle Dum,' we lose."
Santorum’s appearance at several Missouri caucuses was a first for any presidential contender, several party activists said. But it’s unclear if his visits carried much weight.
At the Chesterfield Township caucus, for example, participants reported that Romney's supporters took control with just a two-vote margin.
At the Lafayette meeting, Santorum’s allies were clearly in the majority. They swiftly elected township committeeman Howard, a Santorum backer, as the caucus chairman.
But the majority of the attendees then voted to split the township’s 19 first-round delegates on a proportional basis and not, as in Clayton Township, allocate all the slots to Santorum's supporters.
To get an accurate measure of who backed whom, Howard had the participants move to different parts of the parking lot so organizers could make an accurate determination.
In the end, Santorum was awarded nine delegates, while Romney got seven, Paul was given two and Gingrich, one.
Not all Santorum supporters were happy with the result, and there was a failed — but civil — move to change the proportional approach.
The attendees then tackled party platform issues and finished before the storm hit.
Howard acknowledged that the move outdoors “presented challenges, but I couldn’t possibly be happier” with the civil, respectful discourse.
Participant Valerie Mertz predicted that in 2016, technology will have made such gatherings — indoors or out — obsolete.
As she gazed around the enclave of political activists milling around the pear tree, Mertz lamented it, though. “This,’’ she said, “has been kind of neat.”
Such pleasant caucus memories certainly aren’t shared a few miles away in St. Charles County. The chaos and police intervention, said committeeman Smith, is “a black eye to St. Charles County politics and the Republican Party.”