Democrats in Missouri are hoping that a red-to-blue flip of a once safely Republican suburban St. Louis state House seat is a sign of things to come in 2020.
Democrat Trish Gunby defeated Republican Lee Ann Pitman Tuesday in a special election in House District 99, a western St. Louis suburb that Donald Trump carried by 5 percentage points in 2016 on the way to winning the presidency. Gunby won with 56 percent of the vote to Pitman’s 44 percent.
Gunby’s win was among several that raised concerns for Republicans in suburbs across the country. Suburban voters in Kentucky helped a Democrat, Andy Beshear, to a lead of a few thousand votes in the gubernatorial race — still too close to call but a potentially significant upset of incumbent Republican Gov. Matt Bevin, a staunch Trump supporter.
In Virginia, Democrats took control of both houses of the Legislature for the first time in a generation, thanks in large part to suburban voters.
In Missouri, both parties invested heavily in the special election, which became necessary when former Republican Rep. Jean Evans resigned in January to become executive director of the Missouri Republican Party.
Gunby, 59, believes her win was partly a referendum on Trump but noted that the district, once overwhelmingly white, now is home to a mosque, with a Hindu temple nearby. Many residents, she said, are abortion rights supporters and favor stricter gun laws.
“Those groups want a voice,” Gunby said. “They felt like a Democratic candidate will provide them that voice.”
Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee President Jessica Post, a St. Louis County native, agreed. She called the Missouri Republican Party’s agenda “completely out of touch with the voters in the suburbs.”
Both Gunby and Evans believe the district has been leaning toward Democrats despite Trump’s strong showing in 2016. Democratic U.S. Senate candidates won the district in both 2016 and 2018.
Evans said it was the GOP, not the Democrats, who needed to pull an upset.
“We knew we’d have our work cut out for us and it would be an uphill battle,” Evans said.
Missouri overall remains a conservative state thanks to overwhelming GOP support outside of the St. Louis and Kansas City areas. Republicans control all but one statewide office — Auditor Nicole Galloway is the lone Democrat — and with Josh Hawley’s defeat of incumbent Democrat Claire McCaskill in 2018, both U.S. senators are now Republicans, as are six of the eight members of the U.S. House.
Still, University of Missouri-St. Louis political scientist David Robertson sees cause for alarm for Republicans. He said Gunby’s win is further evidence that Democrats are gaining a foothold farther out from the urban core.
“This shows that the trend toward the Democrats really has gone into newer suburbs,” Robertson said.
Trump won Missouri by nearly 20 percentage points in 2016 and is a heavy favorite to carry the state again. But Democrats believe U.S. Rep. Ann Wagner, a Republican from western St. Louis County, is vulnerable. The four-term congresswoman defeated novice Democratic politician Cort VanOstran by just 4 percentage points in 2018.
Robertson said Wagner knows her district is being targeted for takeover. He expects her to tailor her campaign toward more moderate suburban voters.
“I think she also knows how to detach her campaign, maybe more than some others, from the Trump presidency,” Robertson said. “She’s offering an agenda that’s more down the middle of the road.”
Evans said the Democrats have yet to put forward a candidate to oppose Wagner, whom she called “one of the most formidable campaigners and fundraisers in the country.”
Gunby said she’s eager to get started in Jefferson City.
“I just want to have a voice at the table,” she said.