On the trail: Primary shift gets chilly reception -- and showcases legislative reality
State Sen. John Lamping is no stranger to challenging conventional wisdom about Missouri politics.
Since he entered the Missouri Senate in 2011, the Ladue Republican has introduced bills to shorten the legislative session, have the governor and lieutenant governor run as a ticket and curtail political contributions from tax credit recipients.
Lamping told the Beacon back in 2011 that his ideas came from his time in the private sector. There, he said, "if you don't like the outcome and you don't like what's happening, you look at your process and change the process."
Those proposals haven’t gained much traction in the Missouri General Assembly. But that doesn’t mean they haven’t sparked rigorous discussion.
Such was the case last week when Lamping proposed an amendment to a broader elections bill to move the state’s primary from August to June.
“My rationale for proposing this change was to allow our general election candidates greater time to present their case to the people,” said Lamping on the Senate floor. “We’re not the latest state. There are a few states that have their primaries in September. But a majority of states have their primaries in June or earlier. So my idea here is to move the primary to June to give both general race candidates the opportunity to make their case.”
Lamping’s amendment received a flurry of criticism, especially from state Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal.
The University City Democrat contended that the move would hurt incumbents in districts where the primary amounts to the election, because they would have less time to raise money and campaign in the time between the end of the legislative session and the primary election.
“People already complain about Congress. They talk about how once they win, the next thing they’re doing is running for the next re-election,” Chappelle-Nadal said. “Well, in four-year terms, I want to make sure I get out in the street and actually talk to my constituents. I want to have forums on health. I want to have forums on education. If I have to split what I’m doing as a job to what I’m doing campaigning, that’s going to separate my time.”
Lamping noted that states with full-time legislatures schedule elections while general assemblies are in session. After some more debate (which can be heard at the beginning of this Missourinet audio clip), Lamping asked Chappelle-Nadal if she thought “the most important thing that Missouri citizens are worried about is your ability to raise money over a six-week period.”
State Sen. Ryan McKenna, D-Jefferson County, contends that most state Senate seats lack strongly competitive general elections.
By his estimation, 15 out of the 17 state Senate seats up for election next year will be decided in the primary. (That tally didn’t include the 10th senatorial district in east central Missouri, which Democrats appear to be targeting even though it leans Republican. It also doesn't include the 16th District in central Missouri, including Rolla, or the 18th District in northeast Missouri, including Hannibal. The GOP captured both of these districts in 2010, and they have become more Republican-leaning since redistricting.)
Additionally, 12 of the 17 winners in last year’s state Senate contests won with more than 60 percent of the vote or had no opponent in the general election. That means if 15 out of 17 seats in next year's elections aren't competitive, then 27 out of 34 senators reside in districts where winning a primary is tantamount to election. And 74 members in the 163-member Missouri House faced no opposition in the general election.
The lack of competitive districts has several potential consequences. On the one hand, it may provide a lack of incentive to moderate on key issues. But, on the other hand, the lack of competition could also prompt elected officials to break from strict party positions, especially in the Missouri Senate where individual members hold more power.
In any case, the problem McKenna sees has no easy solution. State House and Senate districts are typically – although not exclusively – drawn up by a panel of appellate judges. Changing that process would require a constitutional amendment, which would have to be affirmed through a public vote.
More practically, Lamping's move will likely have a tough time making it to the finish line. But like other measures in the Missouri General Assembly, sometimes bills with questionable trajectories can provide definitive insight.
But that's hardly the only “bipartisan big tent,” to quote Sen. Eric Schmitt, R-Glendale, action.
“That big tent is made of seersucker,” said Schmitt, the ringleader of a growing legislative fashion trend. Every Wednesday, a number of Missouri senators don seersucker suits. The seersucker caucus is apparently now at 13.
Still, some political observers are aghast at the trend. For one thing, fashion etiquette dictates that seersucker shouldn’t be worn before Memorial Day – with some exceptions. Some are also befuddled why lawmakers are wearing warm weather clothing during a mid-Missouri cold front.
McKenna ended up manifesting some of that outrage in an amendment to the higher education bill. It read: “Any person living in this state aged 8 and under may wear seersucker suits at their leisure. Any person over the age of 8 living in this state may not wear seersucker suits because adults look ridiculous in seersucker suits, with the exception of Koolaid.”
(Koolaid is the nickname for Matt Michelson, an aide to state Sen. David Pearce, R-Warrensburg, known for wearing colorful suits around the Missouri capitol.)
McKenna’s amendment failed, which means the seersucker trend will continue. Perhaps lawmakers will soon emulate former Sen. Jet Banks, D-St. Louis, by changing suits several times a day during debate.
On the Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads from the world of Missouri politics.