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Republicans optimistic about Senate takeover

November 06, 2000
By: Kate Miller and Paul Monies
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - Missouri Republican leaders predict they could make history in Missouri when all the votes are counted for the 180 state legislative seats up for election Tuesday. But Democrats say not so fast.

The Republicans have not held a majority in the state Senate for 53 years, and state Republican Party executive director John Hancock said he's confident.

"I think you're going to have a Republican majority in the state Senate next year," Hancock said.

That's wishful thinking, say Democrats.

"We're well positioned to keep both the House and the Senate," said Kevin Mack, executive director of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee. "In the Senate races, a lot of it will come down to whose camp is more energized."

Democrats currently hold a narrow 18-16 majority, but three Democratic senators would vacate their seats if they win higher offices.

Senators William Lacy Clay Jr., D-St. Louis, and Ted House, D-St. Charles, are running for Congress, and Sen. Joe Maxwell, D-Mexico is running for lieutenant governor.

Two highly contested Senate races are garnering particular attention from both parties.

Incumbent Sen. Jerry Howard, D-Dexter, is in a tough fight against Republican Bill Foster for that southeastern Missouri seat. In western Missouri, Sen. Harold Caskey, D-Butler, is squaring off against Republican Jim Howerton.

Mack said Thursday that Democratic Party tracking polls showed Caskey and Howard slightly ahead. But political pundits still call the races a toss-up.

"This is the closest partisan ballot we've had in 36 years," said Rick Hardy, a political science professor at the University of Missouri. "They've really brought in some big guns who know how to play hardball. The parties are now using polling, computers and phone banks to whip up support."

A tie in the Senate was not out of the question, he added.

A tie raises several questions, especially since the lieutenant governor's office is now vacant with former Lt. Gov. Roger Wilson taking over the office of governor with the death of Mel Carnahan. Missouri's legislative session for 2001 begins Jan. 3 -- just five days before statewide officeholders, including a new lieutenant governor, are sworn in on Jan. 8.

If a tie in the Senate occurs, Gov. Roger Wilson would be under pressure to appoint a Democrat as lieutenant governor to serve from Jan. 5. until Jan. 8. The lieutenant governor breaks tie votes in the Senate.

The Republicans have a substantially less chance of taking the majority in the House. Democrats currently hold a 86-76 majority with one independent, who has filed this year as a Democrat.

Molly Storey, who has been tracking House races for the state Democratic Committee, said the Republicans have no chance of gaining the majority. Hancock is less sure with his predictions but is not overly confident.

"That's a lot harder just because there are so many volatile races, much more difficult to predict with any kind of accuracy," Hancock said, adding that Republicans could wind up with anywhere from two less to eight more seats than right now.

Races for 34 House seats are without an incumbent. Eighteen of these seats were previously held by Republicans and 16 were held by Democrats.

Storey and Hancock agree on the volatility of several of these races.

District 90 in St. Louis County is one such race. Previously held by Republican Bill Alter, the seat is contested by Democrat Rick Johnson and Republican Byron Keelin. Organized labor has given much monetary support to Johnson.

District 124 in Cass County is the scene of another open seat showdown between Democrat James Tieman II and Republican Rex Rector. Tieman is heavily funded by organized labor while Rector has drawn support from insurance and business political action committees. The seat was previously held by Republican Vicky Hartzler.

Callaway County also has an opening for its District 20 seat which was held by Democrat Gracia Backer. Democrat Lewis Baumgartner and Republican Danie (CQ SPELLING CORRECT) Moore have both received political action contributions from the health care and banking industry.

Hancock said the House races were too numerous and volatile to predict and said the Republicans could wind up with anywhere from eight more to two less seats than they currently hold.

The leadership of both parties and political scientists agree, voter turnout for the more high-profile races could have a significant influence on the legislative races. It is unclear who stands to benefit.

"Anytime there is an upswing in voter turnout, it usually benefits the Democrats," said Rick Hardy, a political science professor at the University of Missouri.

Hardy said that because Republicans tend to be better educated and organized, they tend to benefit from lower voter turnout.

But Hancock is optimistic about the possible trickle-down effect from the presidential, gubernatorial and U.S. Senate races.

"We're seeing momentum on all three at top of the ballot races in terms of Bush, Ashcroft and Talent," Hancock said. "That late-time momentum in a campaign is very important down ballot. It's very important both for generating excitement in the base of the party that's got the momentum and important in somewhat depressing the party that doesn't have the momentum."

Hancock said he had lived through the downside of that momentum in 1992 and 1996.

One of the biggest unknown variables in voter turnout is the affect of Mel Carnahan's death.

"I have no idea. This is a first time situation and hopefully it will be a last time situation," Hancock said.