Missouri Republicans campaign to retain majority in legislature

Tuesday, September 30, 2008 | 6:23 p.m. CDT; updated 10:15 p.m. CDT, Thursday, October 2, 2008

JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri Republicans will be playing some defense as they try to keep their healthy majorities in the state House and Senate in the Nov. 4 election.

Republicans have controlled both chambers of the legislature since 2003, when the GOP seized control of the House in a windfall year. Two election cycles later, any change of power is again most likely to happen in the House.

Republicans currently hold a 90-70 majority with three vacancies in the 163-member chamber — it takes 82 members to control the chamber. The Republicans held 97 seats in 2005 but have since slipped.

Top-ranking House Democrat Paul LeVota said that his party has done a better job recruiting candidates than in past years, which he said would put more races in play and cut into Republicans' significant monetary advantage by expanding where they have to spend cash.

LeVota, of Independence, said he's not certain Democrats will take control but is confident the margins in the House will narrow.

"We will be very close to it," LeVota said. "But the ball does need to bounce our way in some of these districts."

But House Majority Leader Steven Tilley said Republicans aren't on the verge of losing control of the chamber and that they could even gain a few seats. The GOP has even selected Ron Richard, of Joplin, to lead the chamber next year because House Speaker Rod Jetton is term-limited and cannot seek re-election.

"If things go right, we could be above 90," said Tilley, R-Perryville. "If things don't go right and our candidates don't do what we ask, I could see it in the mid-80s."

Republicans say their situation has improved dramatically since the beginning of the year, when Gov. Matt Blunt suddenly announced he would not seek reelection. Presidential candidate John McCain was trying energize Republican Party faithful, and some GOP leaders feared they would have to struggle in November just to keep a narrow majority.

In trying to keep that majority, House Republicans will have a lot more money than challenging Democrats to spread around for their candidates.

Campaign finance reports from earlier this month show the House Republican Campaign Committee had raised $2.6 million — more than three times as much as the House Democratic Campaign Committee. Republicans had $1.5 million available to spend while the Democrats had $236,000.

Since that report, the GOP added at least another $125,000 in September, most of which came from the campaigns of Gov. Matt Blunt and unchallenged House Republicans.

The size of campaign coffers, though, is not the only factor.

Since the Missouri House expanded to 163 members nearly four decades ago, the party of the freshly elected governor has picked up House seats in about two-thirds of elections. But the Democrats and Republicans each have claimed more than 10 seats during a gubernatorial election year just once.

The last time the Democrats did that well was in 1964. Lyndon Johnson easily defeated Barry Goldwater, Warren Hearnes was elected to his first term as governor and Democrats gained control of three-quarters of the House seats.

The GOP picked up 15 seats in 1973 when Kit Bond was elected governor, though the Democrats kept a significant majority that year.

So far, 26 House Republicans and 51 House Democrats have essentially guaranteed victory by winning their party primaries because they face a third party, an independent or no one in the general election. Republicans look likely to win in two additional St. Charles County seats, where the Democratic candidates have stopped campaigning and declared they would resign if elected.

That leaves another 84 seats to be decided in campaigns that are at least between one Democrat and one Republican. But House Democratic and Republicans leaders will be focusing heavily on several that they each have identified as harbingers for how Election Day will go.

One is the reelection bid of western Missouri Republican Bob Nance and the other is for northern Missouri Democrat Rebecca McClanahan.

Nance, of Excelsior Springs, has served two terms even though his district had tended to lean Democratic. In 2006, he won by more than 2,800 votes of the more than 11,000 cast during that election. He's being challenged by Barbara Lanning, who has served on the Lawson school board for 12 years.

McClanahan, of Kirksville, claimed an open House seat previously held by a Republican by just 151 votes in 2006. Thom Van Vleck, the director of counseling at A.T. Still University, is challenging her.

Half the 34-member state Senate is also up for election. The Republicans hold a 20-14 advantage, and the GOP holds a 10-7 margin of those Senate seats not up for election.

Four Democrats and one Republican have all but guaranteed election because only a third party candidate, or no one, has filed to run against them in the general election. But of the remaining 12 Senate seats on the ballot, nine are controlled by Republicans, including six by senators seeking re-election.

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