With close statewide races, Jefferson County may be Missouri's bellwether county
U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill acknowledges which county’s election returns she will seek out first on Nov. 6: Jefferson County.
"If we do well in Jefferson County, we’ll have a good night," said McCaskill, a Democrat, in a recent interview as she visited with supporters in Festus.
A bad night could lurk, she said, if Jefferson County's vote tallies don't go her way. That would be a signal that McCaskill may be in trouble statewide.
In 2004, when she lost a bid for governor, McCaskill and Republican victor Matt Blunt split the votes in Jefferson County. In 2006, when McCaskill narrowly won her first contest for U.S. Senate, she took 53 percent of Jefferson County's votes against losing Republican Jim Talent.
That helps explain why McCaskill has made six stops in Jefferson County in the last two months.
The campaign of her Republican rival, U.S. Rep. Todd Akin of Wildwood, is aware of Jefferson County's pivotal role as well. Akin has made three visits since the Aug. 7 primary, a spokesman said.
"Jefferson County is in the top 10 of the most important counties to win," said Pete Williams, Akin's eastern Missouri field director. Williams was among several aides who joined the congressman at a campaign event last week in De Soto, in the county's southern section.
What’s the attraction?
Jefferson County isn't one of the state's largest counties. But it is seen as one of the most reliable swing counties in Missouri — and the last two major elections prove it.
In 2008, Jefferson County narrowly backed President Barack Obama for president and offered solid support for Democrats up and down the ticket. The president was among the few Democrats who lost statewide.
But in 2010, Jefferson County took a hard right turn, as did the rest of the state. Three Democratic state legislators in Jefferson County lost their seats, and Republicans unexpectedly won five of six new County Council seats. Now-Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., captured almost 54 percent of the county's vote, a preview of his statewide landslide over Democrat Robin Carnahan.
Dave Robertson, a political science professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, agrees that Jefferson County has special political status. He ties it, in part, to its population, which Robertson calls, "an odd combination because it has a rural component and an urban component."
"It has a mixture of a strong labor presence and social conservatives," Robertson adds.
On Tuesday, state House Speaker Tim Jones, R-Eureka, says both parties will be joining McCaskill in paying close attention to the county's early returns.
"Jefferson County is going to be the bellwether," Jones says.
Anomaly or trend?
For Republicans, Jones explains, "The question we’re trying to answer is, 'Was Jefferson County an anomaly in 2010, or has the Republican Party established a trend here?"
State Republican Party executive Lloyd Smith says he's confident that the GOP is becoming dominant in Jefferson County. In 2010, Smith notes, Republican congressional candidate Ed Martin (who is now running for Missouri attorney general) got 57 percent of Jefferson County’s votes even though he lost the 3rd District overall to Democratic incumbent Russ Carnahan.
But Democrat Fran Newkirk would tell Republicans not to bet on it.
Newkirk, the Democratic committeewoman of Imperial Township, also sits on the Jefferson County Democratic Central Committee. From what she's seeing and heard, Newkirk believes that some Jefferson County residents regret their 2010 GOP votes.
"I think the 'baby' got thrown out with the bath water," Newkirk says, and some swing county voters are ready to swing back into the Democratic fold. She says many voters are unhappy with the Republicans they elected. The county’s tea party craze, she says, has ebbed.
Sam Komo, a Democratic legislator who lost his seat in the 2010 wave, says he has noticed as he goes door-to-door that some people seem more receptive to his message than they were two years ago.
Both parties cite the same key issue: jobs. Jefferson County lost jobs with the closing of the Chrysler auto plants in nearby Fenton. Many of the 45,000 people employed at those facilities, and related auto-parts operations, lived in Jefferson County.
Terri Kreitler, a Republican member of the Jefferson County Council who also sits on the GOP Central Committee, says that many county residents remain irked that the auto bailout helped workers in Michigan and Ohio but didn't prevent Chrysler from closing in Fenton. They blame the Obama administration, she says.
Other Republicans, including Jones, cite the social issues. He says Jefferson County used to align itself with conservative Democrats who opposed abortion and supported gun rights. Now, he said, "those Democrats are gone."
The Nixon edge
Some Jefferson County Democrats say that some voters are angry over how their turf was treated during the congressional redistricting controlled by Republicans in the state Capitol.
After decades in one congressional district, the 3rd, Jefferson County will be carved up among three — the 2nd, 3rd and 8th — as of this fall's elections. Some say the move was aimed at diluting the county's political muscle.
But as Jefferson County Democrats look toTuesday, they point to another factor that they hope will be their trump card, locally and statewide. This year's ballot, like the one in 2008, features the county's favorite son: Gov. Jay Nixon.
Nixon hails from De Soto, which has a plaque noting as much at the edge of town, and he got his start as a state senator representing Jefferson County. He captured almost 64 percent of Jefferson County's votes in 2008, and some credit his "coat-tail effect" with the down-ballot Democratic wins that year as well.
Nixon's biographical TV spots have been a travelogue of Jefferson County. Last Saturday, he held a campaign stop in Festus to encourage volunteers. And Tuesday, the governor — who was not in office when the Fenton Chrysler closings were announced — headlined events around the state to underscore his commitment to the auto industry, in what some saw as a subtle nod to the now-defunct Chrysler operation.
Issues aside, Jones says that, when it comes to Jefferson County, the political stakes are higher this year for Missouri Democrats.
"We don't have to win every Jefferson County seat," the Republican legislator says. "It’s not 'do or die' for us. For the Democratic Party, this is their firewall. If they lose Jefferson County again, it's very dramatic for them."
Robertson says Jefferson County's election returns could be pivotal in a number of statewide races, especially in the one between McCaskill and Akin. If the contests are close, he says, Jefferson County "could be the 'deal maker.' "
For stories about the issues and candidates in this election from St. Louis Public Radio, the Nine Network and the St. Louis Beacon, visit BeyondNovember.org. For a collection of Beacon stories, visit our 2012 election page.