Missouri’s GOP civil war, explained

By Aristophanes

Missouri used to be a true swing state, but in the last two decades, it’s become reliably conservative. Bill Clinton won the state in 1992 and 1996. Missouri has gone Republican for every presidential election since. In 2016, President Donald Trump won the state by an astounding 19-point margin.

However, state-level Democrats have held on for much longer. Missouri elected a Democratic governor in both 2008 and 2012. In 2016, the Missouri Republican Party, riding the pro-Trump wave, won every statewide office on the ballot. That caused the offices of the attorney general, secretary of state, state treasurer and, of course, governor to flip from Democratic to Republican hands.

Today, Missouri Republicans control every statewide elected office but that of state auditor, which is on the ballot next in November 2018. The party also boasts supermajorities in both chambers of the Missouri General Assembly.

Despite this background of mutual victory, the tension between the legislative and executive branches has rarely been so hostile.

The Republican governor, Eric Greitens, has never held elected office prior to his current position. He is a former Navy SEAL and holds degrees from Oxford and Duke. Most strikingly, he used to be a Democrat. He changed parties in 2015 in preparation for his gubernatorial bid.

Greitens barely eked out a win in a four-way contested primary. In the general election, he ran against then-Attorney General Chris Koster, a popular conservative Democrat who himself had switched parties — in-line with Republican orthodoxy on most issues, Koster switched his affiliation in 2007 over his more left-leaning views on stem cell research and support for labor unions.

Greitens was never the Republicans’ ideal governor, but he served well enough from the start. Over the 2017 session, the Republican-controlled General Assembly managed to pass a few bills stalled by the previous governor’s veto pen. After the part-time legislature concluded its work in May, Greitens called two extraordinary special sessions later that year: one to deal with steel mill operation in the southeastern part of the state, the other an effort to strengthen restrictions on abortion.

This annoyed many Assembly members of both parties. Some saw the added work as an unnecessary expense in a state strapped for cash. Missouri hadn’t called an extraordinary session since 2013. It hadn’t called two in a single year since 2003.

But the greatest divide between Greitens’ cosmopolitan conservatism and the legislature’s rural Republicanism came down to one issue in particular: education. The governor has been a fierce advocate of charter school expansion. Under Missouri law, charter schools, which are publicly funded but operate independently of local school boards, are confined to the state’s two largest urban centers — Kansas City and St. Louis.

The General Assembly, disproportionately composed of members from rural parts of Missouri, is bullish on the effort. Charter schools just don’t play well for districts that can’t even afford full five-day school weeks without the added competition charters would bring. But as long as the legislature resisted the governor’s plans, nothing would change.

Except Greitens found a way around the General Assembly.

Throughout his first year, the governor used his appointment power to instal pro-charter school operatives to the State Board of Education. The state’s education commissioner is selected by the Education Board, and serves at its whim. The well-liked commissioner, Margie Vandeven, was ousted December 1 after Greitens secured a five-member majority on the board.

Because his appointees were made while the Missouri Senate was not in session, they did not require confirmation until the next time the legislature gathered — in this case, early January.

The State Board of Education is not designed to be used as a political weapon, but was created, in part, to insulate the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education from direct political interference. There is evidence that Greitens skirted this purpose by requiring his appointees to vote for Vandeven’s ouster. One who didn’t was replaced by another appointee. One appointee was sworn in mere minutes before voting to fire the commissioner. How can one make such a consequential decision in such a short span of time?

When the Missouri Senate convened Wednesday, Greitens withdrew his five nominations, then resubmitted them as in-session appointees. Doing so gives the Senate until the end of session, in this case, mid-May, to consider the confirmation. Had he not withdrawn then resubmitted his selections, the Senate would only have 30 days to act on their confirmation.

However, the governor’s appointment parrying has another, more immediate consequence. Because his five appointees now count as in-session nominations, they are meanwhile barred from serving on the Education Board. This means the board lacks a quorum — effectively, it can’t operate until more members are confirmed.

This puts pressure on the Senate. Republican Sens. Gary Romine and Rob Schaaf have already vowed to fillibuster the governor’s appointees. However, Democratic Sen. Jamilah Nasheed has questioned this move. Is it worth opposing the governor if doing so shuts down the Education Board for the next five months? What if an emergency arises?

Romine countered Nasheed by saying the governor could easily amend this stalemate by selecting less controversial appointees, and that the Education Board is, per the Missouri Constitution, required to meet only twice per year. But Nasheed wasn’t having it. She argued the governor could simply wait out the Senate. He may simply leave the board inoperative until May, then, once the legislature gavels out of session, reappoint his chosen five as interim appointees once more.

If the anti-Greitens forces in the Missouri GOP are to prevail, they must have Democratic support. Nasheed’s warning tells us this is not assured. Missouri Democrats are unsure how to respond to the strongman in the governor’s mansion. Many, such as Nasheed, hail from Kansas City and St. Louis, and thus have a slew of pro-charter school constituents.

The Senate’s Democratic minority leader, Sen. Gina Walsh, said in a Wednesday press conference that she is likely to oppose the governor’s nominations. However, she made a point to state she cannot speak for her caucus as a whole.

The division goes both ways, it seems.

Meanwhile, the governor is attempting to stack the Senate, as well. Last summer, he appointed former Sen. Will Kraus to the Missouri Tax Commission, thus removing him from the chamber. Last week, he appointed one of his fiercest critics, Sen. Ryan Silvey, to the state’s Public Service Commission. Kraus and Silvey received full confirmation from the Senate Thursday, but not before the members discussed the consequences of their resignations.

The political expediency of the appointments, and the moment of inter-branch tension at which they occurred, disquieted many in the small chamber, which is composed of a mere 34 members. The loss of even one member can change the Senate’s ideological make-up, particularly if the senator is inordinately outspoken.

If you were against the governor’s tactics, but he offered you a lauded position with an enormous pay increase, would you hold it out in the Senate, even though Missouri’s harsh term limits would kick you out of that position soon enough, anyway? Or would you take the offer and just be happy knowing you can provide a more comfortable life to your family?

There’s nothing simple about the current situation. No one quite knows what the future holds for Missouri politics, or whether the tempestuous governor will continue to get his way. ■

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