In 1992, Jim Talent was a nerdy, 30-something policy wonk with wire-rimmed glasses and a head of brown anchorman hair looking to skip a rung on Missouri’s political ladder and win a seat in Congress.
He did it, edging one-term Congresswoman Joan Kelly Horn 50%-48%, a win attributed in no small part to the selfishness of two political giants, Democratic Congressmen Richard Gephardt and Bill Clay.
When the results of the 1990 census came in and state legislators began the redistricting process, there were three congressional districts comprising St. Louis city and its suburbs, all held by Democrats. One of them, Rep. Horn, won her seat by just 54 votes and desperately needed the overwhelmingly Democratic state legislature to shore up her district.
The legislature wasn’t interested.
Nearly 40 years of Democratic congressional control had made top D.C. Democrats fat and happy, and the prospect of losing a single seat must not have alarmed them — or at least, not enough to cross two power players like Gephardt and Clay.
Instead, with Clay and Gephardt’s quiet assent, the legislature threw Horn to the wolves. While Horn lost a nailbiter, Clay won 68%-32% and Gephardt won 64%-33% in their adjacent districts.
While I wasn’t close to the situation — being a high schooler at the time — based on anecdotes from those who were and basic geo-political logic, it seems clear that Gephardt and Clay could’ve teamed up to strengthen Horn’s position.
Clay could’ve taken some of Gephardt’s turf in St. Louis city and ceded some Democratic North St. Louis County suburbs to Horn.
Gephardt could’ve given up then-heavily Democratic turf in inner-ring suburbs that, alongside Clay’s North County offering, could’ve provided Horn’s victory margin.
Declining to do so gave Talent an opening, and he would ultimately end up a United States Senator.
In 2022, another nerdy, 30-something policy wonk with wire-rimmed glasses and a head of lush Harry Potter hair was looking to skip a couple rungs on Missouri’s political ladder and win that same U.S. Congressional seat — a seat that by 2020 saw the nation’s closest presidential contest, with Trump edging Biden by just 115 votes.
But Ben Samuels won’t represent Missouri in Congress this year, or probably ever.
Even after a legislative session of nasty internecine infighting, Republicans got their shit together (barely) at almost the last possible minute and passed a map to shore up Ann Wagner’s district in the way that Clay and Gephardt could’ve done 30 years ago for Joan Kelly Horn.
They did this by lopping some Democratic-trending mid-St. Louis County suburbs off of the 2nd District and extending it out into fast-growing, conservative exurban Franklin and Warren Counties.
And just for good measure, they took care to draw Samuels out of the 2nd District by a single block — like golf, politics is a game of inches — making life even harder for a candidate already fighting to establish his hometown bona fides.
As an outsider with no record who raised well over $1 million for the race, Samuels constituted just enough of a threat that Republicans likely figured, “We’ll almost certainly beat him, but why not try to keep him from spending all that dough that could juice Democratic turnout in competitive state House races across that district?”
And it worked. With Joe Biden at 40% and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee accordingly focused much more on defense (incumbent protection) than offense (seats like MO-2, where they played the last two cycles), Samuels saw the writing on the wall.
The reason Samuels probably won’t ever make it to Congress from Missouri is not that he isn’t bright, hard-working or amply-funded. Indeed, over the past year, he demonstrated all of those things.
The main reason is that our current supermajority Republican legislature is unlikely to change hands before the next redistricting. And with St. Louis County continuing to trend blue — thanks to the national Republican Party’s embrace of Donald Trump and hard-right positions on salient cultural issues like guns and abortion — Republicans will likely continue shrinking the St. Louis County percentage of the 2nd congressional district in order to insulate their party from a blue wave.
Once legislators finished their work and the data-driven Samuels re-evaluated the district, it became clear to him that even a sprinkling of Harry Potter’s floo powder could not turn the 2nd District blue this cycle.
And the only Democratic-leaning district in the St. Louis region will remain the 1st District, now represented by Cori Bush and — with its majority-minority primary electorate where the white voters lean left — a poor fit for a center-left candidate like Samuels.
This is not to say that if Clay and Gephardt had behaved differently in 1991, Ben Samuels would be en route to the U. S. Senate a la Jim Talent.
It is merely to point out the vagaries of politics, and in particular, the redistricting process, which is like a game of musical chairs in which — at least for Missouri Democrats — your opponents control when the music starts and stops.
There are other future political options open to Samuels. But for now, at least, the options for talented Missouri Democrats appear to be further constrained to the state’s blue islands of St. Louis city and County, Jackson County and Boone County.
Perhaps Greene and St. Charles County will join those ranks in coming years as they continue to grow and diversify. But until Democrats can rebrand and rebuild well enough to at least compete in places like Franklin and Warren County, meaningful opportunities for growth are limited.
This comentary by Jeff Smith is published by permission of The Missouri Independent.