Gov. Mike Parson’s refusal to call special elections to fill six vacancies in the House has cost Republicans their supermajority, empowered Democrats in congressional redistricting and left roughly 222,000 Missourians without full representation.
So what’s going on?
The governor and his aides have offered only terse replies to questions, if they answer them at all. Republican lawmakers say they don’t know the governor’s reasoning, or if they do, they’re not talking.
The current political landscape offers at least three possible reasons, however.
Parson may want to insure Republicans don’t become too aggressive during congressional redistricting, which could risk GOP control of U.S. House seats in the long run. He may want to sideline a contingent of hard-right senators that Parson, himself a former senator, has tangled with in the past. Or the inaction could reflect his damaged relationships with House Republican leaders.
The vacancies have piled up in recent weeks as members have resigned to take other jobs. That’s despite a state law that instructs the governor to call special elections “without delay.”
The openings include two legislators Parson appointed to other positions. One Lee’s Summit seat has been open since last April, when the House expelled Rep. Rick Roeber after his adult children made allegations of abuse against him.
“I really don’t know if it’s a power play. I don’t know if it’s about the upcoming elections and primaries and folks running against each other – this or that,” said House Minority Leader Crystal Quade, a Springfield Democrat.
“All of those things are very possible,” Quade told reporters Thursday. “And frankly … the state of things in this building right now, it wouldn’t surprise me if it was completely political.”
On the surface, Parson’s reluctance appears to be a self-inflicted problem for Republicans.
Five of the six open House seats would almost certainly be won by the GOP in special elections, with Roeber’s old seat the possible exception. Republicans are now one vote shy of controlling two-thirds of the chamber’s seats and special elections would be virtually guaranteed to restore their supermajority.
But potential political benefits do exist for Parson, some Republicans and Democrats in keeping the seats open.
Most immediately, the loss of a GOP supermajority makes it more likely that the General Assembly will approve new congressional district boundaries that maintain the status quo of six Republican and two Democratic members, called a 6-2 map. Like every state, Missouri is engaged in the once-a-decade process of redrawing districts to match new Census population data.
Parson hasn’t explicitly endorsed a 6-2 map, but he has suggested that’s what he expects to happen. He told St. Louis Public-Radio last week the maps should reflect “who we are as a state.”
“I mean you’ve got a 6-2 [Republican-Democratic] map now, we’ve had that for 10 years. My guess is, and it’s strictly that, that’s probably somewhere where it’s going to end up,” Parson said.
Lawmakers need to pass an emergency clause, which allows laws to go into effect immediately, to implement a new map before candidate filing begins on Feb. 22. Without the clause, the maps wouldn’t become effective until Aug. 28, weeks after Aug. 2 primary elections. A federal court would likely intervene to impose new maps instead.
The emergency clause requires two-thirds majorities in both the House and Senate. With Republicans shy of a House supermajority, they’ll need Democratic support to approve a map in time.
Democrats are already trying to wield their new leverage, with Quade telling reporters that her caucus wonders whether passing new maps qualifies for an emergency clause and indicating Democrats will offer amendments to the bill.
But some Republicans are vocally pushing for more aggressive maps that would allow Republicans to hold seven seats in the U.S. House by weakening Democratic U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver’s hold over the 5th Congressional District. Parson’s refusal to call special elections sidelines members of the Conservative Caucus, a group of GOP senators who want a 7-1 map but have found themselves at odds with the governor in the past.
Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft, who favors a 7-1 map, had urged Parson in a letter to announce special elections by Jan. 10 to allow them to take place in April.
Parson never responded to the letter, Ashcroft’s office said.
“Secretary Ashcroft is disappointed the governor has not issued writs of election as he feels all Missourians should be represented fairly and equally in the legislature,” Ashcroft spokesman JoDonn Chaney said in an email.
Other Republicans caution a 7-1 map could endanger the party down the road by moving Democratic-leaning voters currently in Cleaver’s district into Republican districts. While Republicans might be able to oust Cleaver in the short term, in the long run it could make the other districts more competitive. In a wave election for Democrats, where voters nationwide sweep the party into power, Republicans could risk losing the seats.
If Republicans aren’t careful, they warn, the party could end up with just five U.S. House seats.
If Parson acts now, will it matter?
Rep. Doug Richey, an Excelsior Springs Republican, said that while he wants the seats filled as soon as possible, he questioned whether the vacancies would actually affect redistricting.
Some of the vacancies occurred just prior to the start of the legislative session last week, he noted. If Parson moved swiftly, new legislators still wouldn’t be in place until April.
“Even if the governor immediately called for a special election, we would not have enough time to get them in the seats to vote for congressional redistricting to occur in a way that would be helpful to Missouri,” Richey said.
Still, the General Assembly could in theory move back filing deadlines into April or later, giving lawmakers more time to work. Currently, candidate filing ends on March 29. By contrast, filing ends June 1 in Kansas.
Parson’s previously strained relationship with the House could also be a factor. The governor lashed out at Republican leaders last year after his State of the State speech — typically delivered in the large House chamber — was moved at the last minute to the smaller Senate. At the time, lawmakers cited the need to take precautions against COVID-19.
In a letter to Republican lawmakers after the episode, Parson seethed at what he called a “petty show of arrogance and political power” that forced him to the alternative location.
House Speaker Rob Vescovo’s office didn’t respond to questions about special elections on Thursday.
“I mean, it’s an issue, but it’s the cards that we have and we’re going to work through it,” the Arnold Republican said of losing the supermajority during a news conference last week.
Rep. Dan Shaul, a Republican leading the House redistricting effort, said last week he hadn’t had discussions with Parson’s office about special elections.
Lack of special elections unexplained
Parson’s office hasn’t offered an explanation for why the governor hasn’t called special elections. Spokeswoman Kelli Jones hasn’t responded to multiple requests for comment from The Star in recent days. On Wednesday, she told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that “Gov. Parson has not announced a special election” — a statement of fact, not an explanation.
James Harris, a Jefferson City-based Republican consultant with ties to Parson, raised questions about the process used for special elections. In regular elections, primaries are held to select a party nominee. In a special election, local party officials choose nominees instead.
“I think when it’s an election year and filing is going to open here shortly, it’s probably a question of should political insiders be deciding who the nominees for a series of elections are or should you just wait and let the people decide in the primary election,” Harris said.
But for now — and possibly until January 2023 — hundreds of thousands of Missouri residents don’t have a state representative.
“Those open seats are reflective of areas of the state that right now don’t have representation in the house,” Richey said. “So I would like to see those happen as soon as possible.”