JEFFERSON CITY— Forced out of the state Senate by term limits, a Missouri lawmaker is trying to buck the natural political current and stay in the Capitol by returning to where his legislative career started — the House.
The move is a little counterintuitive: less influence, reduced prestige and a smaller office. Nonetheless, several state senators across the country have trod the same path, with term-limited senators from Montana to Maine campaigning for state House seats during the past two decades. Many have succeeded and continued their legislative work in the so-called "lower chamber" in the face of term limit policies that block officials from remaining in the same office for long.
Missouri Sen. Kevin Engler, who is completing his second term, is campaigning to become the state's first sitting senator in recent times to cross the Rotunda and start anew in the House.
A Republican from a largely rural district south of St. Louis, Engler served as Senate majority leader but lost a bid for the chamber's top post when lots had to be drawn during a sharply divided caucus meeting. Now blocked by term limits from ever running for the Senate again but eager to continue public service, Engler hopes to secure a spot in the House where he would be eligible for another six years after serving one term nearly a decade ago.
Engler, who lives in Farmington, said his experience with the legislative process and in negotiating complex bills would be a boost, noting an elder statesman of sorts could be useful in a chamber where nearly half the members now have less than a full term of legislative experience.
In the past, "you'd have a House member there for a long time. Now as soon as an opportunity arises, they don't even serve the eight years. If a county commission spot comes up, if a Senate spot (is available) they can't wait," Engler said. He added: "Everybody is kind of looking for some place else to go, and I'm not looking for any place else to go."
No Democrat is running for the House seat, but local city councilman John Robinson is challenging Engler in the GOP primary.
Although more than three-quarters of Missouri senators first served in the House, the reverse career path has been rare.
Rep. John Cauthorn, who is completing his first House term after wrapping a career in the Senate, said he never expected to return to the Missouri Capitol.
"I think some senators will probably feel like coming back to the House would be deflationary to their egos," said Cauthorn, a Republican from Mexico, Mo. "And I look at it as more of if there isn't anyone going to run in my party, then we need someone to run."
The oscillation between legislative chambers has been far more common in other states. For example, Ohio Rep. Randy Gardner this year could make a third jump as he campaigns for a Senate seat in northwestern Ohio. The veteran Republican lawmaker first joined the state House in 1985 and moved to the Senate in 2001. Gardner returned to the House in 2008 and hopes for a return trip to the Senate.
"I refer to them as co-equal chambers," he said. "I know the Senate label has a little more prestige with some people, but I've never really felt much about that."
Gardner said he has heard an occasional gripe about the path he has taken in the Capitol, but notes that there have been plenty of opportunities for voters to "retire me." Several of his colleagues in the Ohio House also have spent time in the Senate, giving the maneuver some sense of normalcy and boosting the seniority in the House beyond that in the Senate.
Supporters of state-level term limits that have led to at least some of the jumping between state legislative chambers say they have no complaints about elected officials who want to maximize their time in the Capitol — even if it means moving in an unusual direction.
"It's fair game," said Philip Blumel, president of the Virginia-based group U.S. Term Limits. "It does show how important it is for politicians to retain that position. It's a pretty good gig to be a state legislator."
Engler says his goal in the Missouri legislature has been public service and not to prolong a career. If there is a way to continue and help out, he wants to try it.
"I think public service and the challenges that we face in the state as far as the budget are serious, and to have people in positions that have more knowledge than most to deal with them, I think is important," Engler said.