ANALYSIS: Numbers of Missouri Senate districts matter

Sunday, February 26, 2012 | 8:00 p.m. CST; updated 8:37 p.m. CST, Sunday, February 26, 2012

JEFFERSON CITY — Decisions about new boundaries for Missouri Senate districts will help determine the number of Republicans and Democrats in the chamber. But the more subtle assignment of numbers to those districts could affect who serves in those districts.

A bipartisan redistricting commission this past week reached a tentative agreement over Missouri's 34 state Senate districts. The commission will meet again to give the map final approval after a 15-day comment period. Many adjustments are apparent in the redistricting plan based on the 2010 census. For example, a Bootheel district is stretched farther northwest and a currently-rectangular west-central seat now looks like an upside down hammer.

One of the most significant changes may be in the numbers assigned to each seat. Numbering is important for Senate districts because only half of the chamber appears on the ballot each election. Odd numbered districts are elected during presidential years such as 2012 and even numbered districts appear in midterm elections such as 2014.

For an example of how significant numbers can be, consider the 7th, 10th and 26th districts.

The redistricting commission made few changes to an L-shaped Jackson County district that runs along the Kansas border. However, the seat was renumbered as the 7th District instead of the current 10th District. The commission then labeled a new east-central Senate seat as the 10th District. Finally, Sen. Jane Cunningham, a St. Louis County Republican who currently represents the 7th District, was placed into the 26th District with Republican Sen. Brian Nieves.

Cunningham — who was elected in 2008 and must win election this year to remain in the Senate — has limited options under the redistricting plan.

She can stay put and challenge Nieves in a GOP primary, but Cunningham would need to sit out two years because the 26th District does not appear on the ballot until 2014. To avoid waiting, Cunningham would need to find an odd numbered district. Her options include entering what might become a crowded Republican primary in the neighboring 15th District.

Republican Sen. Eric Schmitt represents the 15th District and is up for re-election this year. Republican Sen. Jim Lembke, who also is up for re-election, represents the 1st District in southern St. Louis County but could run in the nearby 15th District. Lembke denounced the redistricting plan and said he likely could not win in his newly reconfigured district because it favors Democrats.

Lembke and Cunningham both said they are considering many possibilities, including a primary campaign.

"My desire is to continue to serve in the Missouri Senate. So I'm going to keep all my options open," Lembke said.

Cunningham, who said seeking a statewide or federal office also could be an alternative, said, "Obviously, what they've done is make us all look at primaries as one of the options."

On the other hand, the redistricting plan could offer a temporary boost for Kansas City and Missouri Democrats.

Sen. Jolie Justus, D-Kansas City, won a second term in 2010 to represent the L-shaped 10th District in Jackson County. She will remain in the Senate even if the 10th District is reassigned to the east-central part of the state. Voters in Jackson County then would head to the polls to elect a senator for the new L-shaped 7th District, a region that has been fruitful for Democrats. Under the current map, Democrat Charles Wheeler won without an opponent in 2002, while Justus twice has won more than 70 percent of the vote there.

That means Democrats could end up with an extra Kansas City senator for two years. Republicans would have an advantage in the new 10th District, but it will not appear on the ballot until 2014, when Justus' term expires.

Among the people waiting will be state Rep. Jeanie Riddle, who announced plans to run for the seat when an earlier redistricting plan created a similar district but gave it an odd number. Now, Riddle, R-Mokane, said she is likely to seek another term in the Missouri House before campaigning for the Senate in two years.

"I would have liked to have run for that Senate seat right away, and I think mid-Missouri needs another senator from that area that understands our agricultural values," Riddle said.

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