The Missouri Republican Party is enjoying the first majority it has held in the General Assembly in more than 50 years, but victory in Boone County has remained elusive. The GOP, however, has high hopes that will change in November.
Although Republican optimism suffered a blow last month with the withdrawal of GOP candidate Joel Jeffries from the 25th District House race, the party remains hopeful in the 24th District, where Republican Ed Robb is taking on Democrat Travis Ballenger. And in the 19th District state Senate race, Republican Mike Ditmore is mounting a challenge to Democrat Chuck Graham, who seeks a promotion after eight years in the House.
“I do think for the first time in years, the party leaders are excited about the prospect of winning at least a couple of these seats back,” said Rick Hardy, MU political science professor.
Hardy ran for U.S. Congress in 1992 as a Republican.
He said the absence of incumbents in legislative races is one factor favoring Republicans.
“Once a person wins a seat in the legislature, it is an uphill battle to remove them because of (a) experience, (b) they have a lot of money and (c) a lot of visibility,” Hardy said. “That is hard to compete with.”
Republican Steve Hobbs’ 2002 victory in the 21st District supports that notion. While the district represents only a slice of northeastern Boone County, it was long represented by Democrats until Hobbs, of Mexico, Mo., won the seat, defeating Mike Groves and the succeeding Democrat, Ted Farnen. Hobbs faces Democrat Lloyd Becker in this election.
Elsewhere in Boone County, Republicans running for the House and Senate have been shut out for years. They haven’t held the 24th District seat since 1982, when Democrat Jim Pauley was elected to the first of seven terms. Graham has held the seat since 1996, but term limits prevent him from running again.
The 24th District includes parts of southern Columbia as well as the Ashland and Hartsburg areas, where Republican influence is said to be strong. In 2000, the district was redrawn to include Rocheport and Midway.
Donna Spickert, who in 1996 and 1998 ran as a Republican in the 24th District, believes Missouri and Boone County are becoming more conservative, giving the GOP an edge in some races.
“I think that just as Missouri is turning more Republican, I think voters in the 24th and 25th are following that trend,” she said. “It is a matter of voters educating themselves, not just on issues, but on the parties and their stances.”
Robb, too, said that conservative ideals are taking hold and that growth and redistricting favor Republicans.
“This is by far the most winnable district,” he said, comparing his race to those in the 23rd and 25th districts.
In the 23rd, Republican Dan Fischbach concedes he is making a less-than-formidable challenge against Democratic incumbent Jeff Harris.
In the 24th, Republicans believe Robb gives them an edge over Ballenger, who used to be a Republican but now describes himself as a conservative Democrat.
“Ed Robb brings a lot to the table,” Hardy said, calling Robb a “no-nonsense candidate” with a strong background in education and economics. Robb worked for 30 years as director of the State and Regional Fiscal Studies Unit at MU. Ballenger, Hardy said, will “really have to overcome the tremendous academic acumen of Ed Robb.”
Hardy said Ballenger’s business experience is a strength. Ballenger, who owns three Sofas Plus stores, said he is unsure whether the 24th District has become more Republican or whether that would even work against him.
“Basically, the district is 50-50 right now,” he said. “I believe I can appeal to the Republicans.”
The GOP early on expressed confidence in Jeffries’ ability to win the 25th District House race over Democrat Judy Baker, given Jeffries’ strong showing against incumbent Democrat Vicky Riback Wilson in 2002. But Jeffries’ withdrawal leaves them at a disadvantage. Bob Northup, who has run unsuccessfully for state senator and county commissioner, replaced Jeffries on the ballot little more than a month before the election.
While Republicans have lost ground in the 25th District race, Jeffries thinks they have an edge in the 24th.
“By any reasonable estimation, it has become a Republican district,” Jeffries said.
Political consultant John Ballard disagrees. He said it is unlikely Republicans can grab the 24th. And Pauley, who is Ballenger’s campaign treasurer, remains steadfast in believing the Democrat will prevail.
“Of course, you never know until it’s all over,” Pauley said.
A review of election tallies from the past 12 years lends weight to Republican optimism. It shows the GOP making gradual gains in the 24th District. While Pauley defeated Republican opponents by substantial margins — 13.9 percent in 1992 and 27.6 percent in 1994 — Graham has had more trouble, winning by margins of only 4.2 percent in 1996, 7.2 percent in 1998 and 7.5 percent in 2002. The exception was Graham’s 2000 race against Brian Bauer, which he won by 26.3 percent.
Statistics also reflect a growing conservative attitude in Boone County, where 53 percent favored Amendment 2, the gay-marriage ban, in August. In the 24th District, 60 percent of voters favored the amendment.
Graham, like Ballenger, said residents of the 24th District are about equally split between the parties. “I wouldn’t say it’s more Republican,” he said. “I would say it’s a fairly conservative district. Conservative Democrats perform well.”
Ditmore, however, said that “in terms of voting patterns, it’s starting to be more Republican. There are more switch voters.” Still, he added, “people vote for the candidate more than the party.”
Bruce Wallace, publisher of the Boone County Journal in Ashland, said Republicans are gaining ground.
“I think, overall, that the Republican Party has been running much better candidates,” Wallace said, citing 9th District U.S. Rep. Kenny Hulshof and Boone County Presiding Commissioner Keith Schnarre. In 2002, Schnarre beat Democratic incumbent Don Stamper by only 192 votes across all of Boone County. In the 24th District, he won by 981 votes, or a margin of 57 percent to 42 percent.
Ashland farmer Joel Bullard echoed Ditmore in saying that voters he knows don’t really identify with parties. “Most people in the area vote for the person and not the party,” he said. “It’s gonna be close.”
Jo Hackman, who runs Hackman Farms with her husband, agreed, saying she and her Hartsburg neighbors are more likely to vote for candidates who spend time in town.
“I think that’s the type of people Hartsburg residents like,” she said. “It’s more personal.”
Hackman said an influx of young people might actually be diluting Republicans’ grip on the town. Ganelle Cunningham, a Hartsburg Democrat, agreed but said it’s hard to predict the outcome of the coming election.
“We’ve had a switch-around,” Cunningham said. “We do have some Democratic families, but it’s still predominantly Republican.”