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Historic election Wednesday will decide who controls state Senate

January 23, 2001
By: Lauren Shepherd
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - In three distant areas of Missouri, a handful of voters will cast votes that could mark an historic era for Missouri.

Three special elections Wednesday for the state Senate effectively will decide the balance of power in the almost evenly-split upper chamber.

The outcome could hand Republicans control of the Senate for the first time in more than half a century. Or, voters could give the Senate the opportunity to continue it's unprecedented power-sharing agreement that began earlier this month.

Republicans now have a 16-15 advantage with neither party holding a full majority in the 34-member Senate with -- a balance that forced an historic power-sharing agreement between the parties earlier this month.

With the elections, Republicans could either strengthen their majority, the Democrats could gain a one-seat majority, or the chamber could be tied at 17-17. Whoever takes control of the Senate will have a large role in how congressional districts will be redrawn during the legislative session.

"It's hard to imagine a more pivotal special election," said John Hancock, executive director of the Missouri Republican Party.

Three districts will be holding elections -- the Democratic-leaning 4th district in St. Louis City, the Republican-leaning 12th district in the northwestern part of the state, and the 18th district in Mexico. The seats became open after legislators were elected to other offices in November.

Polls in all three districts will open at 6 a.m. and close at 7 p.m. Wednesday.

Hancock said Republicans, who have not had a chance at the majority in the Senate for 54 years, have focused most of their time and resources on the 12th district and the 18th district races.

"They both are particularly competitive," he said. "We think they're winnable."

The 12th district seat, formally occupied by Sam Graves who was elected to Congress in November, pits Rep. David Klindt, R-Bethany, against Rep. Randall Relford, D-Cameron. In the 4th district, Republican activist Dwight Billingsly is facing Rep. Pat Dougherty, D-St. Louis.

The 18th district seat, formally held by the newly elected lieutenant governor Joe Maxwell, has garnered the greatest attention, time and money from both parties.

"There is certainly a lot of interest in the 18th district," said Democratic party spokesman Jim Grebing. "It's a Senate campaign that has drawn a lot of attention."

Both candidates in the race, Rep. Robert Clayton, D-Hannibal, and Republican John Cauthorn, president of the Missouri Cattleman's Association have been inundating voters with attack ads, accusing each other of negative campaigning.

"Robert Clayton has tried to run a positive campaign," Grebing said. "Republican operatives have grossly distorted Clayton's record in the House."

But Hancock said "distortion is in the eye of the beholder. I don't think John Cauthorn has distorted anything."

The candidates were both courting voters Tuesday, attempting to get people to the polls. Cauthorn embarked on a eight-county tour through Hannibal ending in Scotland County while Clayton spent the day at coffee shops and lunch counters in Hannibal.

"He's practicing retail politics today," said Cauthorn spokesman Kim Baldwin.

Turnout in special elections has traditionally been low, hovering around 15-20 percent in Senate special elections, according to the Secretary of State's office.

The struggle to gain power in the Senate has been expensive for both parties with the campaigns raising and spending over $300,000 each in the 18th district alone, according to campaign finance disclosure reports.

Hancock said the party considered the election critical since it determines more than the political makeup of the Senate.

"It's really about a seat at the table in the legislative branch, which Republicans haven't had in over 50 years," he said.