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More Democrats Are Outperforming Poll Projections. Could Missouri Be Next? In recent years, Republicans locked down many uncontested legislative seats. Can Blue Missouri and ‘Dirt Road Democrat’ Jessica Piper break the cycle?

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Above image credit: Democrat Jessica Piper is the executive director of Blue Missouri. (Catherine Hoffman | Flatland)
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6 minute read

To win in politics takes money. But it also takes a candidate. And, if you don’t have the candidate — even with the money — you’ll lose. Just ask Missouri’s self-proclaimed “Dirt Road Democrat” Jessica Piper.

“At Blue Missouri, I really have a different vision, and that’s really long term — working on seats that may not flip for two, three or even four cycles,” Piper said recently during a phone interview. 

Piper is constantly on the move, speaking at rallies and to civic gatherings to almost any Democratic Party-curious organization in the state. She called in for a recent interview while driving down to Missouri’s Bootheel to support the U.S. House of Representative candidate Randi McCallian

Now the executive director of Blue Missouri, Piper is the product of small town Missouri. She began her career as a teacher and became politically active in 2016 after former President Donald Trump won office. She ran for a seat in the Missouri House of Representatives in 2022 and lost her bid. In doing so in a deeply red district, though, she earned a massive social media following.

Meet Jessica Piper: Missouri’s ‘Dirt Road Democrat’

Blue Missouri does not fund national candidates, but Piper makes herself available for party members up and down the ticket. 

Piper’s strategy hinges on “just having a constant Democratic message and a constant candidate out there.”

The last day for candidates to file in Missouri this year is March 26.

Piper said that the Missouri House Democratic Victory Committee hopes to flip three seats this year. But she’s blunt about the challenges in mounting a long-shot political campaign. 

“I get why people (don’t become candidates),” Piper said. “Who wants to give money to a race that isn’t going to win? But that’s actually the entire point… long-term planning and making sure that we don’t leave districts and people behind.”

In recent months, Democrats have been outperforming polling expectations in a variety of political races across the country. Most recently, Democrat Tom Suozzi won by a comfortable margin in the special election to replace Republican U.S. Rep. George Santos.

“In November, Democrats flipped the Virginia state House, gained seats in the New Jersey state legislature, held onto the governorship in deep red Kentucky, and … picked up a critical state House seat in Orlando, Florida — an important indicator of political mood in the I-4 corridor, home to many Hispanics,” U.S. New & World Report recently noted.

The publication added that Democrats are now outpacing Republicans in terms of voter registration.

A Bootheel Pastor Throws His Hat in the Ring

J. Michael Davis has a touch of the tent show revivalist in him, though he’s less fire-and-brimstone than some of his predecessors might have been. Davis, a guitar-playing Navy veteran and pastor, is running to represent House District 147 in Cape Girardeau.

“I have Republican friends, and they’re good people,” Davis said.

Even so, he brings a clear, stern message.

“What we need to do is let people know that Republicans have held a supermajority for the last 20 years,” Davis said. “They are responsible for the decline of the standards of public education throughout the state, and for a decline in the salaries of our teachers, and for the decline in women’s rights and for the increase in legislation that takes away their rights, and for the decline in health care in our rural areas, and for an increase in the deaths of people from gun violence. You see what I mean?”

More on PBS: Democrat Tom Suozzi wins New York race, flipping George Santos’ former seat in Congress

Davis is kind but insistent and persistent. According to the most recent campaign finance reports, he is significantly behind his Republican opponent John Voss in the cash-on-hand race: trailing $867.60 to $10,543.87.

Those numbers were certified in January, though, and they don’t take into account subsequent fundraising efforts such as a recent event that Davis and campaign manager Brock Freeman claim raised at least $3,000.

Official first-quarter campaign finance numbers should be available April 15. Current and second quarter results also won’t include any Blue Missouri funds because the organization does not fund candidates until after the primary, which is Aug. 6. 

Just How Competitive Are the Races for the Missouri Legislature? 

The numbers below tell a clear story. Democrats are treading water — at best — in terms of offering candidates in Missouri statehouse races.

The Democratic Party conceded nearly 30% of Missouri Senate races in 2022 compared to 22% in 2016. In the state’s House, Democrats conceded 40% of races in the same years, respectively. 

Fighting for Seats

Number of Missouri Legislature seats uncontested by Democrats20242022202020182016
Missouri SenateTBD5 of 17*4 of 170 of 174 of 18
Missouri HouseTBD66 of 16353 of 163**18 of 16366 of 163
* Table is full, but five races show “primary results pending.”
** Democratic primary canceled. 
Via Ballotpedia.

Piper says the Missouri Democratic Party’s goal is to contest 75% of the races this year. And, while she says Blue Missouri doesn’t recruit — they only fund primary winners — she personally ends up recruiting anyway on her travels around the state. Piper also reported that state party Vice Chair Yvonne Reeves-Chong feels there will be “more candidates this year than we have had in a long time.” 

“I’m just coming back from a meeting with a local Democrat at Starbucks in Maryville,” Piper said. “I was trying to talk her into running. It’s a constant hustle trying to find somebody to run in these districts.”

But, she says, if one does run in a formerly uncontested district, they do a lot even if they don’t win.

“And so the next time there’s a Democrat that knocks the door, they’ve heard the message before, they’re familiar with it. They don’t think Democrats have horns. You just have to keep going, keep beating that drum until they’re like, ‘These people seem okay and they want to work for me.’”

Jessica Piper, executive director of Blue Missouri and host of the Dirt Road Democrat podcast, speaks at the 2023 Galvanizing Gutsy Women Gala.
Jessica Piper, executive director of Blue Missouri and host of the Dirt Road Democrat podcast, speaks at the 2023 Galvanizing Gutsy Women Gala. (Courtesy | Jae Judy)

Pennies for Victory

To win a campaign takes a candidate, money … and data.

Here’s one example. What’s the minimum amount you need to spend on each voter in an election to see a noticeable swing in your party’s direction?

According to Michele Hornish, executive director of Every State Blue, the umbrella organization for Blue Missouri and a handful of other state Democratic Party efforts that fund down ballot Democratic nominees, that number is 36 cents.

“Our research shows that just having a Democratic nominee that spends 36 cents per eligible voter can increase the turnout and vote share for the top of the ticket by up to almost 2.5%,” Hornish said. “When a challenger spends that amount, they can increase turnout by 1%. And then you add that in with just having somebody on the ballot in the first place and you get this supercharged effect.”

Hornish and a previous iteration of Blue Missouri began fundraising in 2018 and distributed almost $65,000. That number ballooned to $168,000 in 2020. 

“This is just from a small community of people giving monthly for two years,” Hornish said. 

“Our research shows that just having a Democratic nominee that spends 36 cents per eligible voter can increase the turnout and vote share for the top of the ticket by up to almost 2.5%. When a challenger spends that amount, they can increase turnout by 1%.

– Michele Hornish, executive director of Every Blue State

Hornish and her Blue Missouri team were funding all Democratic candidates, whether they were in a sea of blue or not. Then they got to thinking. Could their dollars be more impactful if they were redirected to candidates who were really struggling? 

“We went back to our Blue Missouri members, and we said: ‘We know that making sure that people have at least 36 cents per eligible voter means that they have the resources that they need to boost turnout. How about we change our funding model and we only send funds to those people who have an opponent, and we only send funds to those who fall below that funding threshold? And the response back was like 98%, I think. They said, ‘Yes, let’s change the funding model.’”

In 2022, Hornish said Blue Missouri sent out $119,000. But because it was divided among a smaller group of candidates, they were sending out $2,000 checks.

Hornish said that makes it far different for a new candidate in a tough district who wants to spend money for the parade entry fee “or to get a tent at the state fair or something like that, that real serious retail politicking that we need to do in these areas.”

“That’s where all this money went,” Hornish said. “Those are the underfunded, uncontested districts all across the state, and everybody knows that we need to be fighting in those areas because that’s where all the extremist policy comes from.”

Flatland contributor Haines Eason is the owner of startup media agency Freelance Kansas.

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