ST. LOUIS, Mo. – The general election to replace termed-out Democratic Rep. Jeanne Kirkton in the 91st district could be surprisingly competitive with Republicans targeting the seat as a pickup opportunity with a strong candidate.
To win the district, Republicans have some long odds to overcome. Kirkton popularly represented the district for the past eight years, winning her last two elections by 20 points.
Her popularity could help the Democratic candidate, Sarah Unsicker, who said she voters she encounters don’t welcome her until she tells them Kirkton termed out.
“I tell them that Jeanne Kirkton has been the representative here for the last 8 years,” Unsicker said. “A lot of people know her and they don’t take kindly to me until I tell them that she’s termed out and I’m running to succeed her.”
Unsicker said Kirkton has campaigned some for her and that could help boost her chances of election. There’s also a possibility that the presidential election has an impact on the district.
“I think Hillary’s going to do pretty well in my district and I expect that to trickle down the ballot,” Unsicker said.
But the Republican candidate disagrees and thinks voters won’t include him with other candidates.
“My district residents know that I have served for 10 years in government and that I cast an informed vote based upon sensible counsel and data and my own conscience,” said Republican nominee Greg Mueller. “I’m running my own campaign on my own accomplishments and merits. I’m not running with or on the campaigns of others.”
Mueller’s served on the Webster Groves city council for the past seven years, but his roots in the district go deeper. He said his family has lived in the district for four generations, from his grandparents through to his own children.
“I grew up here,” Mueller said. “I walked to grade school. I saw most of the streets in my district while riding a bike that I earned as a caddy at a local golf course. We’ve raised our family here our whole lives. I’m running on 10 years of local government experience, a lifetime as a resident and 25 years of accomplishments in the courtroom. District residents know me.”
That experience with the district has made Mueller a top recruit for Republicans and a reason they think he has a chance to flip the blue district red.
“Greg Mueller is an excellent fit for the 91st district. He is working very hard and smart to win a competitive race,” said Casey Burns of the House Republican Campaign Committee.
But Mueller isn’t a typical Republican. He’s running as an independent Republican, who will provide district residents a voice with the party of power but won’t follow leadership lockstep.
“I think a representative who is a member of the majority party, where spending decisions are made, can more effectively represent this district,” he said. “I will serve as a measured advocate using the same skillset I’ve used effectively in court as an attorney and on council as a member. It’s a logical fact-driven approach based upon reason and experience, presented in a reasonable and effective manner.”
Mueller’s already spoken out about an issue where he would not have voted with the majority of the party: guns. He would have voted to sustain Gov. Jay Nixon’s veto of SB 656 last month.
“I hope to serve as a measured advocate for constitutionally allowed gun limitations,” he said. “I think I part company with many rural representatives who want an increase of freedoms with every type of gun. Our suburban and urban areas have different issues that are not being heard.”
For her part, Unsicker wants to tackle a range of Democratic priorities, specifically expanding Medicaid, funding education and ethics reform. But in a campaign where she might not have the typical issue separation from her opponent compared to the typical Republican, she’s had to defend her lack of experience in government.
“I’ve done a lot of listening and working with current legislators,” she said. “I think I have a lot of guidance and mentoring. I think I’ll be able to start from day one.”
Mueller also recognized the lack of a substantive issue gap.
“My opponent and I have similar positions on many issues. But I have 10 years of local government experience,” he said. “I have represented people in court for 25 years, including the Missouri Supreme Court, I have represented people at city council for 10 years, and I think those accomplishments will help me more effectively and more capably represent our district in Jeff City.”
Both candidates have been hitting their doors, making calls and interacting with voters in the district. But their plans might diverge down the stretch. Mueller doesn’t think he has to change much to pull out a victory.
“I don’t have any plans for a blitz. I’ve been running on my lifetime accomplishments and contributions to the district,” he said. “These campaigns are longer than city council races and voters have a longer time to get to know you.”
On the other hand, Unsicker plans to increase her activity over the final weeks.
“We’re going to do an extra push close to the election,” she said.
Both candidates have optimistic outlooks and think they’ll make good representatives for their districts. The election’s results could say more about their parties than either of the candidates.
If Unsicker wins, Democrats did what they were supposed to do.
If Mueller wins, it’s been a very good year for Republicans.