COLUMBIA, Mo. — Republicans finally have their candidate to take on Rep. Stephen Webber in the race for the Columbia-area senate seat in a race that could easily become the must-watch down-ticket race of 2016.
Rep. Caleb Rowden announced yesterday that he would be challenging Webber for senate district 19, a seat long thought of as a Democratic stronghold until outgoing Sen. Kurt Schaefer narrowly captured it in 2008. Schaefer is running for attorney general in 2016.
There’s been long speculation about who Republicans would send to run against Webber, whose local roots and Marine Corps background make him a strong candidate for the state’s largest college town. Several area lawmakers have supposedly been mulling a run, and Rowden’s resume has its own high points. Like Webber, Rowden is young and hails from the district. Like Webber, he’s run for election a few times, has some name ID, and can appeal to younger voters.
Rowden’s decision means he’s exiting a race for majority floor leader in the House, where he was pitted against acting leader Rep. Mike Cierpiot and prospective MFL, Rep. Robert Cornejo.
“I am proud to support my friend Caleb for Senate,” Cornejo said. “Caleb is a hard worker and will bring a history of accomplishments to the Senate 19 race. As for the Floor Leader’s race, Caleb and I shared a similar vision on how to address some of our caucus concerns about how to have more caucus input and to move the House priorities forward. I believe that shared vision resonates with out members and will help bring about a fresh, energetic face to House leadership.”
Cierpiot — who served as assistant majority floor leader until being elevated to the full post in the final days of session after the resignation of House Speaker John Diehl and the ascension of Rep. Todd Richardson to the post of Speaker — decided to seek his caucus’ nod to stay on as MFL through the coming year. Cierpiot said Rowden would make a strong candidate for senate.
“I’m excited he’s running for senate because I think he’s a natural match for that district,” Cierpiot said. “As far as leaving the floor leader’s race, it’s a very difficult job for someone with a young family, and I completely understand him rethinking that once he’s been on the road as much as this job requires.”
The Columbia-area Republican confirmed that a desire to be home with his wife son played a big role in his decision to move away from a leadership race and toward the senate.
“In the Senate you’re representing a huge amount of people, and the district is 30 minutes wide and 30 minutes tall, it’s huge, but I’m still able to be home to put the kid in bed,” Rowden said. “Traveling the state as I have been for this leadership race really made me realize to what level you’re away from home. I don’t regret the process at all, but it definitely informed my decision.”
Rowden will have to first catch up with Webber’s fundraising. The young Democrat has had nearly two full quarters of fundraising and is sitting on a war chest in excess of $300K, while Rowden’s $54K cash on hand is perfectly respectable for a sitting rep with no leadership position, he’ll have to tap some deep pockets to close the gap.
“Obviously we’re working on closing the gap, but I think that’ll happen relatively soon,” Rowden said. “We start now to paint a picture to contrast the things I believe in and the things I accomplished in less than half the time then Stephen has been in the House. I don’t see us as working from behind at this point.”
The Missouri Democratic Party immediately responded to Rowden’s entrance into the race in a statement.
“If Rep. Caleb Rowden wins the Republican primary to face Stephen Webber next November, voters will have a clear and easy choice. Rep. Webber is a Marine Corps Veteran who has never shied away from doing what’s right for his community or casting tough votes. Rowden’s tenure in Jefferson City has been defined by blind allegiance to party bosses. The citizens of the 19th Senate District deserve a Senator who will finally represent their interests, and not take orders for special interest lobbyists. With Stephen Webber they will get that leader.”
But raising money has never been an issue for senate Republicans, where members with no election in the coming cycle tend to funnel huge chunks of cash into closer races.
Collin Reischman was the Managing Editor for The Missouri Times, and a graduate of Webster University with a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism.