Outsiders win (mostly). The upset wins by President-elect Donald Trump, Governor-elect Eric Greitens and Attorney General-elect Josh Hawley demonstrated that the attraction of political outsiders did not end with the primaries. Voters wanted change, and they’ll get it, although both Trump and Greitens will be tested by their legislatures, including those from their own party.
Things were different in congressional races. In spite of Congress’ historically low approval ratings, only seven incumbent U.S. House members and two senators lost their seats last month. In Missouri, Sen. Roy Blunt won re-election in a race he was expected to lose, and all eight congressmen won re-election easily, albeit against underfunded challengers. All but one of the Missouri congressional contests produced a greater share for the Republican candidate (whether incumbent or challenger) than in the last presidential election in 2012 (including Jason Smith, whose 2012 total was earned by his popular predecessor, Jo Ann Emerson). The exception was Republican Ann Wagner, who trailed her 2012 share even though she didn’t have the benefit of incumbency back then, when she was first elected. Wagner generated resentment from Trump loyalists when she unendorsed Trump after the release of the Billy Bush video, but her congressional district was also the one Missouri district where Trump ran behind Mitt Romney’s 2012 pace.
Robin Smith’s candidacy was a dud. Well-known former television news anchor Robin Smith, a Democrat, was expected to run a decent campaign for Missouri Secretary of State. Democratic party leaders, paying homage to identity politics, had discouraging all but token primary opposition so she could be in a position to become the first African American elected to statewide office. While her general election opponent, Republican Jay Ashcroft, enjoyed the good will attached to his namesake father, popular former Gov. and Sen. John Ashcroft, the younger Ashcroft’s own electoral record was not good. His only prior stab at elective office was in 2014, a very Republican year, when he lost an open St. Louis County state senate seat then held by a Republican. Smith’s candidacy was actively publicized by the St. Louis American, St. Louis’ leading weekly newspaper primarily serving the African American community. While 2016 turned out to be a difficult year for Missouri Democrats, that fails to explain how poorly she fared compared to other Democrats on the ticket. Among the seven statewide Democratic candidates, Smith’s vote percentage was next to last, not only statewide but also in both St. Louis City and County, where Smith was best known.
A possible lesson here is that St. Louis voters have not reacted well to former news personalities seeking public office. Former KSDK reporter Mike Owens won less than 33% in a 2012 Democratic primary for state representative in a contest in which he was the only white, with two black candidates splitting the rest of the vote, and running with the support of his wife, influential Alderman (and possible future mayor) Lyda Krewson and her effective ward organization. Also, back around 1980, former KSDK anchor Bob Chase, a Republican, lost twice running for Congress in St. Louis County.
Paying the price for guessing wrong on Trump. Before Trump’s surge following the announced reopening of the FBI investigation of Hillary Clinton, establishment Republicans tried to distance themselves from a nominee they regarded as a sure loser. They portrayed their decisions not to endorse their party’s standard bearer as a matter of principle, but everyone knew they thought that’s what they needed to do to save their own hides. Well, they guessed wrong about Trump, and many of them paid the price they were trying to avoid. Both incumbent Republican U.S. Senators and four of the six incumbent Republican congressmen to lose re-election, as well as the losing Republican who had the best chance to win a Democrat-held senate seat, were candidates who at some point (after the primaries) publicly rejected Trump. Rep. Ann Wagner of St. Louis County, who, as noted above, retracted her endorsement of Trump (though later announced she would vote for him), easily won re-election to her safe Republican seat, but was Missouri’s only Republican congressional candidate to get a lower share of the vote this year than in 2012.