St. Louis County race is key battleground for Missouri Senate

St. Louis Post Dispatch

Monday, October 27th, 2014

By Virginia Young

View Original Story Here

OLIVETTE • Democratic Rep. Jill Schupp of Creve Coeur has no trouble contrasting herself with the state senator she is trying to replace, Republican John Lamping of Ladue.

Schupp favors expanding Medicaid to the working poor; Lamping blocked the bill. That difference is one reason the Senate race “absolutely matters,” Schupp told supporters at a recent fundraiser here. Except that Lamping isn’t running for office. And Schupp’s opponent, Republican Jay Ashcroft, is harder to pigeonhole.

Though he has a famous conservative father — former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft — Jay Ashcroft has never held public office and has no voting record. A lawyer, he has taken few hard-and-fast stands and is campaigning on a vague limited-government philosophy.

“The whole reason I’m running is, I think that government should be there to protect people’s ability to live life the way they want to,” Ashcroft said in an interview in his Clayton law office.

The race is a key battleground. The 24th District covers a wide swath of central and west St. Louis County, reaching as far as I-70 on the north, I-170 on the east, Manchester Road on the south and west of Highway 141 on the west.

Democrats view the district as the one Senate seat statewide that they can switch to their column. The district leans 54 percent Democratic, based on a state redistricting commission’s analysis of election data from 2002 to 2010.

But Republicans are expected to benefit from President Barack Obama’s plummeting approval rating. Also, a president’s party historically fares poorly in a midterm election. For those reasons, the race is viewed as a toss-up.

“An awful lot’s going to be dependent on who decides to turn out and vote, and because we expect it to be so limited, that’s going to make a big difference,” said Dave Robertson, a political science professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

With the Nov. 4 election just over a week away, both Ashcroft and Schupp are angling to energize their bases and woo swing voters. Each has raised more than a million dollars, and most of the money is going into direct mail and television ads in the home stretch. Libertarian Jim Higgins of Creve Coeur, who is raising and spending less than $500, also is on the ballot.

ASHCROFT NEW

TO POLITICS

Until this year, Jay Ashcroft, 41, had avoided the limelight.

A Jefferson City native, he moved to St. Louis County in 1998, when he was transferred by his West Plains, Mo.-based employer. An engineer at the time, Ashcroft switched careers in 2008 when he earned a law degree. He began working at his father’s law firm in 2009.

Jay Ashcroft filed for the Senate race in March, on the final day of filing. Though he got a late start, he didn’t have to spend any time building his name ID. His father served as Missouri’s auditor, attorney general, governor and U.S. senator before leading the U.S. Department of Justice.

Jay Ashcroft strongly resembles his father in appearance. But the younger Ashcroft seems more down-to-earth, often poking fun at himself.

His father was a teetotaler who didn’t dance at his own inaugural because of religious beliefs. Asked whether he shares those traits, Jay Ashcroft said: “My hard drink of choice is a strawberry milkshake. I have danced but not well.”

His lack of airs has surprised some on the campaign trail. Higgins, the Libertarian nominee, said two young Ashcroft volunteers knocked on Higgins’ door and got in a heated debate with Higgins’ wife. The next day, Ashcroft showed up personally to apologize. “My wife was impressed,” Higgins said.

As far as issues go, Ashcroft said he was “sure there are places where I agree with my father and places where I disagree with my father. I feel better just saying, ‘This is what I believe.’ ”

In fact, his positions on issues often seem under development, which he acknowledges. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m supposed to know everything, but I don’t.”

Asked, for example, if he favors using public money to pay for children in unaccredited schools to attend private schools — a frequent flashpoint in education debates — Ashcroft said: “That’s one way. I tend to take an all-of-the-above approach. The focus ought to be on whether kids are learning.”

Pressed on whether that means he supports vouchers, he sighed and said: “If there’s no (accredited) public school, I guess we have to. The state’s budget is what, $27 billion? If we can’t create a way for kids to have a good education, that’s reprehensible.”

He was similarly noncommittal about whether the state should accept federal money to expand Medicaid to cover 300,000 low-income adults. He said he would work to improve access to quality medical care but hasn’t signed on to any particular plan.

“I really want to work to be someone who says, ‘Here’s the problem, what are all the potential solutions?’ ”

On taxes, he said, he favors across-the-board cuts to help businesses grow rather than tax credits for special interests. He said he would “look at ways to trim the government” before deciding whether a gas tax increase might be needed to fund highway construction. His father passed the last two fuel tax increases — in 1987 and 1992.

Republican state senators have bankrolled Ashcroft’s campaign, providing $570,411 through a joint political action committee and $110,505 through their individual campaign committees. Ashcroft said that did not obligate him to side with them.

“The Senate leadership has been very helpful,” he said. “I’ve said, ‘Thank you,’ and that’s all I’ve said. There have been no strings attached to any of that money.”

SCHUPP’S TRACK RECORD

Schupp, 59, has clearer stances on issues, thanks to her 14-year track record in public life.

She got her start on the local level, when she left an advertising career and became involved at her sons’ schools. She ran for the Ladue School Board on a platform of air-conditioning the schools, lowering class sizes and starting foreign language instruction in the elementary grades, among other things.

“I had six planks on my platform,” she said. “I served for six years and we got all six things done. What did I learn from that? You can do this, when you collaborate and work with people and have a vision for what can be.”

In the House, where she has served six years, Schupp is known as a studious legislator who delves into the details of the state budget.

“She really sits down with the books and learns the stuff,” said Rep. Chris Kelly, D-Columbia.

Schupp minces no words when describing her positions, saying it’s “unconscionable” that legislators haven’t fully funded the aid formula for K-12 schools and “egregious” that legislators passed a 72-hour waiting period for abortions, with no exception for rape or incest. She also opposed the income tax cut that Republicans enacted this year over Gov. Jay Nixon’s veto.

She has sponsored unsuccessful legislation taking aim at a licensing exemption that allows Missouri home day care providers to watch more young children without a license than the state enrollment limit of four. Under the policy, providers are allowed to exempt related children such as nieces and nephews from that enrollment count. Schupp argues that policy enables paid providers to care for too many children without proper supervision.

She has been even more vocal in advocating for Medicaid expansion and was recognized in July by the St. Louis Regional Chamber for her leadership on that issue.

Despite her differences with GOP leaders, she said, she has reached across party lines to get things done — for example, when she passed a provision that helped motorists who were being ticketed for having bike racks that obscured their license plates.

The Democratic Party has given Schupp $251,564, and party luminaries such as Nixon, U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill and Attorney General Chris Koster have helped her raise money. Schupp’s major donors include labor unions and trial lawyers.

Schupp contends that Ashcroft is “likely to be an extremist. I haven’t heard him speak out on many issues at all, so my assumption has to be that he will follow in the footsteps of his father.” Her latest television ad targets suburban women voters by suggesting Ashcroft would limit access to contraception services and abortion.

Ashcroft, meanwhile, has an ad attacking Schupp for “an extremist agenda,” citing her votes to raise taxes on “working families” while expanding “corporate welfare” and giving a tax break to yoga studios.

No matter who wins, Republicans will retain a large majority in the Senate. Only a few Senate races are considered competitive, and Democrats are defending some of those seats. The GOP currently controls the Senate 23-9, with two vacancies.

While the two major-party candidates slug it out, Libertarian Higgins, 66, is running a shoestring campaign. His platform includes making public education compete with the private sector by granting vouchers, promoting a free market instead of giving subsidies to businesses, and legalizing marijuana.

Higgins said Ashcroft was “just running on his name. He just sort of throws out some generalities.”

And Higgins’ opinion of Schupp? “She’s a typical Democrat. There’s no program that she doesn’t like or no tax that she doesn’t like.”

The League of Women Voters of St. Louis tried to set up a forum for the three candidates to air their views side by side. Schupp and Higgins wanted to participate, the league’s coordinator, Pat Jones, said in an email, but the Ashcroft campaign “hasn’t given us any dates that would work for them.”

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