In many regards, Missouri Republicans have seldom been more powerful than they currently are, well positioned to carry out their part in the conservative movement sweeping the Midwest and South.
They hold commanding majorities in the legislature and have helped make this historic swing state Republican-leaning territory in presidential politics.
Yet they seem beset by troubles that have all the makings of a made-for-TV drama and have left some wondering whether the turmoil will hamper the party’s effectiveness in the future.
There have been sexual indiscretions. Political mudslinging and backstabbing. A high-profile candidate brought down by a verbal gaffe. Allegations of religious prejudice. Even a pair of tragic suicides.
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The latest fallen star is Missouri House Speaker John Diehl, who resigned in disgrace last week after acknowledging a Kansas City Star report that he had exchanged sexually suggestive text messages with a 19-year-old Capitol intern.
The saga has left people asking, “What’s going on with Missouri and the Republican Party in that state?” said Dave Robertson, a political science professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
There is no simple answer. Some of the party’s woes stem from poor decisions by individual members — the types of things that could happen anyplace. Other problems have revealed internal divisions that have been amplified as the GOP’s ranks have grown, providing a cautionary example to majority parties elsewhere.
The larger question is whether Republicans can recover in time for the pivotal 2016 elections, which feature contests for president, Senate, governor and most of the state’s executive offices. A Republican presidential candidate is unlikely to win without carrying Missouri. And without winning the governor’s mansion — which Democrats have held for 18 of the past 22 years — Republicans may not be able to enact some of their priorities, such as a “right to work” law limiting union powers.
“Missouri is a very contested state, and the last thing you want is an image that seems to be one-sided … a negative image that is restricted to one party,” said Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida, who has seen some of the unflattering Missouri headlines from afar.
So extensive was the disarray during the sexting scandal last week that the House canceled all business on its penultimate day. But it still had a more productive final week than the Senate, where GOP leaders chose to quit early rather than endure a filibuster from Democrats protesting their management. Legislators passed nearly a third fewer bills than last year.
“Obviously, over the past weeks and months, it has been a rather difficult session at times for a variety of reasons,” said the new House speaker, Todd Richardson, who took over for Diehl.
Missouri Republicans have at times been split among a moderate, business-oriented wing that has traditionally provided its financial base and a more conservative, tea party element.
“That deep division is nationwide,” Robertson said. But the factions “may be more closely balanced here … so the explosiveness may be a little bit more pronounced.”
Heading into the 2012 elections, Missouri Republicans figured to have a good shot at unseating freshman U.S. senator Claire McCaskill. But Todd Akin, the strongly conservative congressman who won the GOP primary, doomed his challenge by telling a TV interviewer that women’s bodies have ways of preventing pregnancy in cases of “legitimate rape.” Big Republican donors abandoned him, and he lost badly to McCaskill.
Similar GOP chasms were revealed in February of this year when state auditor Tom Schweich fatally shot himself just weeks after declaring his candidacy for governor. A Republican operative already had aired a negative radio ad mocking Schweich’s physical appearance, and it seemed to Schweich that other Republicans were aligning to oppose him. Schweich had wanted to go public with allegations that the new state GOP chairman had led an anti-Semitic whispering campaign against him.
A month after Schweich’s suicide, his former auditor’s office spokesman fatally shot himself.
The deaths shook Republican politics like an earthquake.
Diehl’s resignation amid a sexting scandal was like a political aftershock. On the session’s last day, Republicans had to reshuffle their leadership at a time they would have been concentrating on legislation.
But many Republicans believe they can rebound. Several Republicans already are running for governor, and the GOP has candidates for each of the other statewide offices.
“These transitory things — that make the paper and are sensational — make you think that something significant is happening to the landscape when maybe it isn’t,” said Woody Cozad, a lobbyist who served as Missouri Republican Party chairman from 1995 to 1999. “I don’t see anything that’s happened in all of what’s gone on … that actually reduces our chances of winning office.”