The leader of the Missouri House Democrats is running for governor.
House Minority Leader Crystal Quade ended several months of speculation on Sunday with a web video announcing her candidacy. Among other things, the video features the Springfield Democrat showcasing her working class background and maneuvering through a roller derby to show that she can handle rough-and-tumble politics.
“When you come from nothing, you fight the odds your whole life,” Quade says in the ad.
In an interview, Quade said she chose to run for governor because “Missouri’s government has just become too extreme.”
“I’ve been in Jefferson City for seven years now. And each year, it’s become more divisive and there’s less attention spent on Missourians and more attention spent on politics,” Quade said. “And I decided to jump in just because, frankly, folks have had enough of that.”
Quade has represented a legislative district that encompasses part of Springfield since 2017. After being elected to her second term in 2018, Quade won a contested race to become House minority leader — and has held that position ever since.
As Democratic leader, Quade has often provided the counterpoint to the Republican majority. That includes advocating for policies like Medicaid expansion and speaking out against the state’s ban on most abortions. And she’s spoken out against GOP efforts to constrict the initiative petition process.
If elected governor, Quade said she would invest more time and attention on bolstering state departments such as the Children’s Division and making sure that license bureaus are more functional. She also noted that she has a track record of working with Republicans, who will almost certainly retain control of the General Assembly after the 2024 elections.
“Every piece of legislation that I have sponsored that’s become law was carried by a Republican,” she said. “I plan to continue that type of across the aisle where it makes sense.”
The ad alludes to her advocacy of legislation that would curtail countries including Russia and China from buying Missouri farmland. It also notes that she’s “leading the fight to restore our abortion rights.”
Quade said she honed in on the issue of foreign ownership of farmland because the COVID-19 pandemic prompted more people to become concerned with supply chains. And she said that emphasizing her support of abortion rights was necessary after the state banned the procedure under most circumstances.
“I’ve knocked on the doors of voters. And we’ve had the discussion around abortion access, and I’ll have folks say: ‘I don’t agree with you, but I appreciate your honesty. And I appreciate you actually living up to what you say that you believe in,’” Quade said. “And so I will continue to do that throughout this race.”
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Quade’s ad specifically mentions Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft, one of three likely GOP candidates for Missouri governor.
Sizing up compeititon
Quade had talked extensively about a candidacy on a recent edition of Politically Speaking — and has been receiving encouragement from her House colleagues to run for the state’s top office.
“I am a huge fan of Crystal Quade, she knows that. She and I are friends personally and colleagues professionally,” said Rep. Steve Butz, D-St. Louis, during a recent edition of Politically Speaking. “She would be an awesome candidate for the Democrats and really would serve as an awesome governor for the state of Missouri.”
Quade’s ad takes on Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft, one of the three Republicans seeking to succeed Gov. Mike Parson next year. “I’m not worried about bullies like Jay Ashcroft, because Missouri has never seen a governor like me before,” the ad states. “Ashcroft uses fear to score cheap political points and divide us.”
In addition to Ashcroft, Lt. Gov. Mike Kehoe and likely Sen. Bill Eigel, R-Weldon Spring, are seeking the GOP gubernatorial nomination. Quade said she mentioned Ashcroft in the ad because most public polls show that he’s ahead at this point.
“His name recognition alone shows us that he’s going to get national attention. And so we do expect him to win the primary,” Quade said. “That’s why we highlighted him.”
In a statement, Ashcroft’s campaign said that the two-term secretary of state has “delivered on his promise to run fair, honest elections, overhaul the state’s business services and bring accountability to government.”
“Missourians expressed their approval of these policies by reelecting him with the highest general election vote count in state history,” the statement continues. “He welcomes Rep. Quade to the race and looks forward to giving Missourians a chance to compare their respective records and vision for Missouri.”
File photo / Carolina Hidalgo
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Lt. Gov. Mike Kehoe presides over the Missouri Senate in May 2019.
But Quade’s focus on Ashcroft in her ad may be a subtle acknowledgement that a general election bid against Kehoe may be more challenging. Butz said that Kehoe possesses cross-party appeal, since he often takes a more pragmatic approach to issues.
“Her better chance is if someone like [Sen. Bill Eigel] or Ashcroft were the Republican nominee,” Butz said. “If it’s Kehoe, I think it becomes almost insurmountable.”
Quade said, “It doesn’t matter if you claim to be a moderate or a conservative, they’re all still voting the exact same way.”
“And I almost laugh anymore at elected officials who say they’re moderate Republicans, because they just simply don’t exist,” she added.
Kehoe took issue with Quade noting that she “didn’t own a car dealership, or a cattle farm” in the social media posts announcing her candidacy. He aded that he “never met my dad, and my single mom worked three jobs to raise six kids.”
“We had no money. I didn’t make excuses. My siblings and I had to work hard to support my mom and we earned the opportunity to achieve the American Dream,” Kehoe said. “That’s the great thing about our country that the progressive left wants to destroy.
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Corn ready for harvest on Oct. 24, 2022, at former state senator Wes Shoemeyr’s farm near Maud, Missouri. Democrats in the Show Me State have performed miserably in statewide elections because of their weakness in rural parts of the state.
Threading the needle
Regardless of who wins the GOP nomination, Quade will face the challenge of piecing together a geographically diverse coalition for her party.
Both Kehoe and Ashcroft crushed their Democratic opponents in 2020 by racking up huge margins in rural areas and dominating larger counties that were historically Democratic like Jefferson and Buchanan.
Missouri Democrats acknowledge they can’t win statewide elections without improving their performance in rural areas and fast-growing suburbs. In addition to bolstering turnout in the Democratic-leaning cities of St. Louis and Kansas City, Quade said her party needs to increase its reach in suburban and rural counties.
“I grew up in southwest Missouri, but I represent the third-largest city in the state,” Quade said. “So I do have both perspectives. And my time as the Democratic leader in the House has really proven that I can identify and reach with Democrats, regardless of where they’re from.”
Despite the geographic challenge for her, Democrats have expressed excitement about Quade’s gubernatorial bid, contending it’s a welcome development for a party that’s lost enormous ground over the past few election cycles.
“We have some tremendous Democratic leaders in the state House and I am just in awe of them every day — they’ve really stood up, and they’ve been that voice of reason so many times when we’ve gotten stuck in these ridiculous debates,” said Rep. Maggie Nurrenbern, D-Clay County, earlier this year. “Obviously I have tremendous respect for Minority Leader Crystal Quade. I’ve been impressed with not only how she leads our caucus but really is able to negotiate and put the priorities of Missourians first.”
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The Missouri State Capitol on Thursday, May 11, 2023, in Jefferson City.
A repeat of 1992?
One thing that Missouri Republicans are monitoring is whether a slew of competitive statewide primaries could foster enough hostility to hurt their general election prospects in November.
That’s arguably what happened in 1992, when a contentious gubernatorial primary for governor likely hurt GOP nominee Bill Webster in his massive defeat by eventual winner Mel Carnahan.
“I absolutely think that the infighting within the Republican Party will contribute to us doing better,” Quade said. “We’ve seen it on the legislative side that when they’re fighting amongst each other, that that makes it easier for us to do our jobs or to stop bad things from happening.”
Both Kehoe and Ashcroft have conceded that in a state that’s become more Republican in recent years, it’s not realistic to expect a primary contest for an office as vital as the governorship to be without rancor.
And a bigger factor in the Democrats’ 1992 victories (besides Webster imploding due to revelations of criminal conduct) was Bill Clinton winning Missouri’s electoral votes. A Democratic victory in 2024 seems less likely, after Donald Trump beat Joe Biden in the state last time, but there are unanswered questions about whether GOP voters would be as enthusiastic about a presidential candidate other than Trump.
“I just think the candidates will have to figure out what the line is for them and how they want to run the race,” said state Rep. Bill Hardwick, R-Waynesville, who has not made an endorsement in the GOP gubernatorial contest. “Do you make people feel uplifted? Do you make them feel positive? You make people feel hopeful? Do you think there’s going to be a good future for Missouri?” he added. “Or do you make them feel like politics is miserable? It’s corrupt, it’s dirty. and nobody wants to be involved in it? Every single candidate has to decide where they want to be in that process.”
There’s also no guarantee that Quade will get a free pass, as other Democratic primaries — including the one for the U.S. Senate and attorney general — feature multiple candidates. While noting she can’t stop other people from running, Quade added she’s hoping to have a relatively clear field.
“We have a lot of work to do to continue to get Missouri back to a place where we are really competitive,” Quade said. “And we do that by being unified.”