"You're a Republican? Gee, you must be the last one in the city!"
Sound familiar? If so, you're not alone. In recent years, it has seemed like all of the Republicans have left the city of St. Louis. It's been over 50 years since there was either a Republican mayor or a majority of Republican aldermen. It's been over a decade since a Republican from the city was elected to the Missouri General Assembly, around two decades since there was more than one Republican alderman, and even longer since there was a Republican in a citywide elected office. It would be easy to assume that Republicans are an endangered species
But the reality of life for Republicans is somewhat more optimistic than that. There's still life in the Grand Old Party in the city of St. Louis. And the numbers bear out that reality.
In 2000, almost 25,000 St. Louisans voted for President Bush. In 2002, almost 20,000 voted for Sen. Jim Talent. These numbers alone place the city of St. Louis as one of the top ten counties for Republican votes in Missouri. Based on the total number of registered voters and the percentage who voted in the last two general elections, around 1 in 5 St. Louisans is either a solid Republican voter or regularly votes for Republican candidates around 40,000-50,000 of your friends and neighbors.
So why aren't there more Republican elected officials in St. Louis? There are a number of reasons. Some are geographic. The vast majority of Republican voters live in the southwest corner of the city, with other concentrations in just a few neighborhoods, like parts of the Central West End, Lafayette Square, Baden, and Riverview. The rest are scattered throughout the city, as decided minorities in most neighborhoods. Only in the 16th Ward, with a near majority, and the surrounding wards (the 12th which is home to the city's only Republican alderman, Fred Heitert 13th, 14th, and 23rd) where Republicans are around 35-40 percent of the electorate, could a Republican achieve the necessary votes to get elected based purely on voting history.
Some reasons are structural. Beginning in the mid-1970s, the Republican Party leadership in the city began to take an almost "hands off" attitude toward candidates and campaigns. This, coupled with a few bad policy decisions, resulted in many long-time, dedicated Republican activists becoming disillusioned with the GOP in the city, and many joined the exodus leaving the city for the suburbs. This situation lasted until the mid-1990s.
In many cases, there is a pronounced lack of support, financial and otherwise, from prominent Republican donors who live in the city. Rarely, if ever, do these notable Republicans contribute to Republican candidates running for office in the city. In fact, in many cases, they contribute heavily to Democrat candidates, even when an equally qualified candidate is opposing them a fact the Democrats frequently advertise. Even worse, they often actively discourage candidates from running as Republicans, telling them that "a Republican can't get elected in the city," which, of course, becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The local media also plays a role, frequently downplaying Republican candidates' chances, or simply ignoring Republican candidates altogether. Often, when seeking a Republican Party spokesperson from the city, they contact people who have no contact with the local GOP organizations, and who have no idea as to the current policy positions of the Republican Central Committee, resulting in the public receiving information about the Republican Party that is at odds with the actual views and positions of city Republicans. And within the minority community, the situation is even worse. Many times, the person contacted to comment as an "ethnic Republican" isn't even a Republican at all. A prime example is James Buford, who is almost always cited as an "African-American Republican" authority, but who hasn't supported a Republican candidate for office in over two decades except for Sen. Kit Bond (who appointed him to a state commission while governor), and has contributed heavily to, and actively campaigned for, most major Democrats.
And then there is the curious phenomenon of Republican voters refusing to vote for Republican candidates. Time and time again, voters who would never think of voting for a Democrat for president, governor, senator or congressman, turn around and vote for the "least objectionable" Democrat for alderman or state representative, even when there is a well-qualified Republican candidate in the race.
But the situation for city Republicans is beginning to improve. After a shakeup in the leadership of the city Republican Central Committee in 1996, a new group of younger, more energetic committeemen and women has emerged to lead the organization into the 21st century, aided by a number of more "seasoned" political veterans, eager for the change. More aggressive policies toward campaigns and candidate recruitment were implemented, which are beginning to produce results. Wards that have been without active Republican representation for many years now have active committeepeople, dedicated to bringing the Republican message to areas of the city that haven't heard it in decades.
These efforts are beginning to produce Republican candidates who are attracting interest and support from a number of statewide Republican officials and backers. Candidates like 16th Ward aldermanic candidate Carol Wilson, and state senate candidates Matt Hoffman and Roger Plackmeier, while failing to win their elections, have drawn Republican leaders from all over the state to help with their campaigns, accompanied by significant financial support. Although there are still some districts for which recruiting Republican candidates is difficult, the city Republicans have contested almost every special election in the last three years, and have always had a candidate for mayor every four years. And part of the city is once again represented by a Republican state senator, thanks to redistricting. Approximately 30,000 St. Louisans in south city are part of the 1st State Senate District, represented by Sen. Anita Yeckel.
There have been a number of gains in recent years, and it is now no longer unusual to see Republican campaign signs in many areas of the city. During the 2002 campaign, there were even some areas in which the Republican signs outnumbered the Democrat ones. The percentage of voters voting for Republican candidates has been increasing in recent years, due to more aggressive campaigning by Republican candidates and their volunteers. With the 2004 elections again promising to be very close, expect even greater efforts by the national and state Republican Party organizations to persuade city voters to vote Republican next fall. With the state legislature solidly held by a Republican majority, future Republican candidates can make a strong case for election, in order for the city to have a voice in the enactment of legislation affecting St. Louis. The city Republican Central Committee is hard at work on candidate recruitment and campaign strategy for the 2004 elections, and will be actively working in all areas of the city.
The city GOP knows that theirs is a difficult task, and many would wonder if it is worth the effort. But, after a half-century of one-party dominance, the city Republicans believe that the citizens of St. Louis are ready to look to a different way of governing. Some would say that the mountain is just too high to climb, that the Democrats are too entrenched to be removed from office. But city Republicans look to the example of the Missouri Republican Party for hope. Twenty years ago, in 1983, if you had predicted that in 2003 the Republicans would control both chambers of the General Assembly, with significant majorities, most people would have considered you completely crazy. The Democrats controlled almost 80 percent of both the House and the Senate. But today, that prediction is the reality. It may take another 20 years for the Republicans to regain parity in city government, but they believe the results a more vibrant political environment and a more lively political debate, resulting in better government for all St. Louisans is more than worth the hard work that lies ahead.
For more information about the City Republicans, go to www.stlouiscitygop.org.