JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – Missouri Republican Party Chairman John Hancock has weathered a storm of bad press that few experience, let alone, outlast in their lifetimes. After months of laying low, the party held a successful fundraiser last week that may put the Party back in the black and on the right track to a great 2016 – and Republicans are crediting Hancock’s leadership.
Hancock said things are “definitely going in the right direction.”
The “right direction” has been defined by a chorus of support pointing to increased and successful fundraising, party unity, and policy changes to put Missouri in the spotlight for 2016.
THE PIANO MAN
Many marvel at and have seen the piano playing abilities of Hancock. Hancock calls his love of ragtime piano a “true hobby,” while others have seen it translate into new friendships.
“John played [the piano] at the Lafayette County picnic,” state committee member Kay Hoflander shared. “We had all the candidates – there were just a ton of them there. At the end, one of them who did not support John Hancock, he was with the group that wanted him out, came up to me after and said he’s never heard him speak, address a room, or play piano. He said, ‘I saw with my own eyes how people instantly knew and loved him. I like this, I love this and I think we should all come together. After seeing this tonight, I think we should support him.’
“That person, just by seeing how he handled everything, changed his mind. It does work, the ability for him to be warm and friendly. The way he handled all the candidates and the crowd, he just did a really fine job of that. That fits perfectly for the chair of the Party.”
Hancock shared that it was piano that got him into politics. He was turned on to ragtime when his piano teacher, who lived down the street, played Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag” after his first piano lesson. Hancock was determined to learn the song and eventually did, after several months of practicing bar by bar.
When the Scott Joplin House was put on the National Register of Historic Places, a 16-year-old Hancock was ecstatic, then disappointed when the money would not be released for preservation. After hearing excuses citing that Joplin only “lived in the house for 2 weeks,” teenaged Hancock called the St. Louis mayor’s office and told them they were wrong.
“He actually lived there for 2 years,” Hancock said, citing his love of Scott Joplin.
A representative called back and explained the situation and Hancock was introduced to the bureaucracy of change, which he fell in love with.
“When I was 16, I got my name in the paper for saving the house,” Hancock laughed. “It truly is an American musical form.”
Hancock lovingly shared details of the house, which contains player piano scrolls recorded from Scott Joplin’s playing. “You really should go there next time you’re in St. Louis.”
“Piano got me into politics.”
“Raising money in a state party that has no contribution limits for candidates is challenging,” Hancock told The Missouri Times. “It will remain challenging. I think we have got a lot of our former donors back that we lost and that continues to be a focus for me.”
Hoflander, of Lafayette County, said fundraising is going great for the Party, pointing to the Spirit of Enterprise dinner from late September. Missouri Republican Party Executive Director Jonathan Prouty said while they don’t release specifics, they did “very well.”
Sources say the party has raised well over $350,000 since Hancock took over, prioritizing debt reduction.
“Naysayers said he wouldn’t raise any money and that’s not true and it will continue to not be true,” Hoflander said.
Hoflander was echoed by fellow committeewoman Sara Walsh.
“Under chairman John Hancock’s leadership, the party has gone from tens of thousands in debt and into the black,” Walsh said. “We’re united and ready for 2016.”
Former presidential candidate and Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and former governor of Missouri Matt Blunt were present at the recent fundraiser. Blunt praised Hancock as the “right man” for the party.
“2016 is a vitally important election from the statehouse all the way to our nation’s Capitol,” Blunt said. “Missouri is at the center of the fight, and here in Missouri we have the right plan with the right man leading our state party to be successful in the all important year in John Hancock.”
House Republican Campaign Committee (HRCC) committee treasurer Eddy Justice echoed the praise.
“To this point, Hancock has proven his fundraising ability while appropriately and wisely leading the party in the direction that accurately mirrors the principles reflecting the opinions of the majority of Republicans and Missourians as a whole. I am happy with his success to this point and anxiously look forward to the advancements our cause should and must have in the near future.”
“We came out of pain and grief for Tom Schweich and his family,” said Hoflander, who also serves as the Lafayette County Republican Central Committee chair, said. “Out of that has come this unity that has been amazing. It would not have happened if it weren’t for John Hancock. There is so much unity.”
Committee members and leaders pointed to a party that is “diverse, both ideologically and intellectually,” but now looks beyond personal political differences towards a goal of election success.
“Lord knows we’ve been through some trying times,” Hancock said. “There is great diversity in the Party. There is a great amount of intellectual and ideological diversity. I always try to get peoples’ voices heard. Rather than tell people how we are going to do things, I listen and get feedback to reach consensus. The party committee was very divided and now we are unified, which is very critical to 2016.”
Party unity is highlighted as a priority to legislative leadership, as well.
“A strong state party will be critical to Republican success up and down the ticket in 2016. John recognizes that and I’m excited about the direction of the state party as we head into a crucial election cycle,” said House Speaker Todd Richardson, R-Poplar Bluff.
Hancock pointed to the open statewide seats and an incumbent U.S. senator as causes for unification.
“The opportunity in front of us is great,” Hancock said. “The challenge is convincing people that we can win and we’re going to.”
Committee members held Hancock’s enthusiastic determination responsible for the increased unification.
“He has an optimistic personality,” said Hoflander. “His enthusiasm, his sense of humor, he just lightens up every serious meeting. Through all that, it’s all business. His brilliance, his ability to problem solve, positive attitude is at the root of everything. If you’re around him very long, you understand that nothing he does is fake. He sincerely cares about who he is talking to at that moment and you know you’re being heard. His best trait would be how he listens and relates to other people.”
Hoflander joked that if anyone could write a book on how to survive a crisis and come out on top, it would be Hancock.
“It speaks to how good he is in public relations and basically being the CEO of a party,” Hoflander said. “He was brilliant with that and his ability to see things and problem solve is excellent.”
Committee members shared that people called and emailed them wanting Hancock out after he was accused of a “whisper campaign” against Schweich – in which Hancock was accused of stating that Schweich was Jewish in an alleged attempt to hurt the rising gubernatorial candidate – but the relationships that Hancock had built when running for the position created a trust that circled the wagons for the new chairman.
“I don’t know if there are many people who could survive that,” said Hoflander. “What about his family? His wife? His children? His business? His employees? Lots of people were affected. He was able to succeed and keep everything going. At the same time of beginning a new job of running the party, he was trying to save his political life.”
It was more than noticeable that Hancock quickly dropped out of the spotlight beyond a few choice appearances, including one on This Week in Missouri Politics.
“He would tell us, ‘you don’t want to be the story, I’m not the story, it isn’t about me, we have to move forward as a party,'” said Hoflander. “He has taken himself out of the party. He’s out of the news, but he’s been working hard and he has built a team that surrounds him. The state committee just circled wagons. They had to get through us to get to him. People asked us to fire him, and they got nowhere. … He built that. What he did was, he won our trust from the very beginning, traveled the state, got to know us and built personal relationships from that.”
Hancock credited the truth, as well as a solid right-hand man, as the path through the storm.
“I knew what the truth was, and I shared and told the truth,” Hancock said. “When you do that as different facts kept dribbling out. Everything I was saying from day one turned out to be true. It was a difficult situation because it was wrapped in tragedy. You never expect to have to deal with something like that. Having Executive Director Jon Prouty at my side through that whole thing, he is one of the finest people I’ve ever known and is tremendously talented.”
Walsh credited Hancock’s character as a contributor to his ability to rise above and beyond to move the party forward.
“I feel that he has exhibited great strength of character,” Walsh said. “It takes a very strong person with a very strong character to motivate others in a trying time. There have been a number of storms the party has weathered and his character has been tested. I really feel like he has been positive. He talks very upbeat and positive. He’s very upbeat and positive. That strength of character is really serving to make him a wonderful leader to move us all in the same direction. It takes a special person to not get drug down into petty fights.
“He’s driven to take issues head on. ‘How much are we in debt? Let’s fundraise as a team, let’s do this, we’re Republicans,'” Walsh continued. “That work ethic and excellent attitude are really ideal. It’s really motivated me on the committee, and others, to follow his leadership and move together.”
Of course, not everyone is so optimistic, especially his Democratic counterpart.
“It sure looks to me like there are plenty of storm clouds still ahead for the Missouri GOP,” said Missouri Democratic Party Chairman Roy Temple.
PARTY CHANGES & NOVEMBER 9, 2016
Since Hancock took the reins, party changes have been foreshadowed, and now Missouri voters can expect to see some of those changes during the 2016 presidential election.
The party is undergoing a conversion of voter data to reflect the digital age. Currently, the party’s system is very outdated and updates are difficult in a cell phone era in a state that does not require voters to register their political affiliation.
Hancock also explained a reform to the Republican presidential caucus. In true political form, Hancock explained the reform, but redirected TMT to missouri.gop for further information. The new system will break down delegates by congressional district and include at-large delegates and also allocate representatives by majority vote.
“We basically rewrote the rules on how the party will handle everything,” Hoflander said.
The changes have emerged from full committee involvement. Every committee member sits on a party committee or sub committee. The organizational changes are what turned it around for some members.
“Everyone is involved, everyone is included, everyone is valued,” said Walsh. “During our state committee meetings, it’s amazing to see the unity in the room.”
The transition has been well-documented to have conflict. The party was once one of continuous conflict between “Tea Partiers” or the “Ron Paul people” or “The Establishment.” The divisions boiled up after Schweich’s suicide with many Republicans calling for Hancock’s resignation, which would require a 2/3 majority vote of the Republican state committee.
“When he took over, there was a period of time that he was having to defend himself to those who were asking him to step down,” said Hoflander. “During that time, very little got done. He said, ‘No, we’re here to do a job, we need to get to work.’ He brought us in, told us he had a plan, and that it was time to get to work and win elections.
“It really went forward in April when we had a training session in Jefferson City,” Hoflander continued. “It wasn’t a regular meeting – we went over state statutes, rules, setting up committees and subcommittee changes. That’s when it gelled and came together. Then we had June and September meetings. For me, [the turning point] was that training session in April. Enough time had gone by then that we were ready to move forward.”
The changes are a passion of Hancock’s, who enthusiastically and optimistically explains the needed changes and goals.
“I’ve always been an optimistic person,” Hancock said. “Politics are important. Politics are important, but not the most important. First is the relationship with your Creator and the ability to serve the needs of your family. Priorities help to have an optimistic attitude.
“Everyone says every election is the most important election and that’s usually not truthful,” Hancock chuckled. “This election truly is about saving the country – morally, economically, monetarily, economically, policy-wise. The American Dream is the closest to being dismantled that it has ever been. If we can’t fix that, there’s something the matter.
“I genuinely love people, I love working with people, I love serving people,” Hancock, a former lawmaker and statewide candidate said. “I have met some of the most amazing and fascinating people that you could possibly imagine.”
Walsh shared that even the basic structure of executive meetings has been changed. Once closed to the committee members not on the executive board, they’re now open to all committee members.
Despite increased honesty, transparency, and inclusion, committee members laughed when saying they couldn’t begin to tell you who Hancock supports.
“He doesn’t have to agree with you. He never indicates who he supports, I don’t know anyone who could tell you who he supports,” said Hoflander. “He gives the chance to bring views and ideas, work it out, and bring it back. It’s really worked seamlessly. Because of all this, we can see really good things for 2016 despite the pundits and the media.
“People who may not have supported him, do now,” Hoflander continued. “All we hear is the bad shape we’re in and I don’t see it. The money has started coming in. The state committee is unified. John boiled it down to one thing, the same goal – we all want to win in November. We all have our eye on the ball. He has asked us all to pledge that no matter who wins – no matter the race, that we will all come together and work hard for that person in November.”
Election Day is nearing 400 days away, and if you ask Hancock, he sees a red flood.
“I think it is entirely possible that we have won the White House, Sen. Blunt has been reelected, we have captured the Governor’s Mansion and theres a really good chance that we won all down the ballot,” Hancock said. “I keep saying the numbers in the legislature can’t get higher, but they could be and the numbers keep growing, so I think it’s possible that we gain more seats.
“In order to have that, we have a lot of work to do and a lot of healing coming out of the primary in August,” Hancock continued. “There will be several candidates that aren’t nominated for the statewide and we need those good folks and their supporters to put the uniform on and get out there and win the election in November. That is going to be very important to the party to bring folks back together.”
Rachael Herndon was the editor at The Missouri Times and also produced This Week in Missouri Politics, published Missouri Times Magazine, and co-hosted the #MoLeg podcast. She joined The Missouri Times in 2014, returning to political reporting after working as a campaign and legislative staffer.
Rachael studied at the University of Missouri – Columbia. She lives in Jefferson City with her husband, Brandon, and their two children.