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GOP state Senate incumbent faces strong challenge in suburban St. Louis County

GOP state Senate incumbent faces strong challenge in suburban St. Louis County

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Koenig and Lavender

Rep. Deb Lavender (right) is challenging Sen. Andrew Koenig in the 15th Senate District

JEFFERSON CITY — Democrats are eyeing a St. Louis County state Senate seat this fall, intent on toppling a founding member of the upper chamber’s Conservative Caucus who easily won election four years ago in a suburban area Republicans are scrambling to hold this year.

State Rep. Deb Lavender, D-Kirkwood, is challenging the incumbent, state Sen. Andrew Koenig, R-Manchester, in the 15th Senate District, which roughly tracks south of Manchester Road, including all or portions of Ballwin, Chesterfield, Fenton, Glendale, Sunset Hills, Valley Park and Wildwood, among other municipalities and unincorporated parts of the county.

While Koenig, who served eight years in the state House, won 61% of the vote in 2016 against Democratic candidate Stephen Eagleton, his opponent this year is bullish, declaring last week in a Capitol hallway to a reporter, “I’m going to win.”

If Lavender does win, the traditionally Republican area once represented by current GOP Attorney General Eric Schmitt will join a list of suburban, affluent districts that have drifted from the GOP since 2018.

Lavender cited this statistic as an indication she will succeed: nearly 62% of voters in the district supported the Medicaid expansion question that appeared on the August primary ballot, outpacing the 53% of voters statewide who supported it.

“I think this is a district where people are socially progressive,” she said. “They are in favor of people having health care from Medicaid expansion, especially when we know our tax dollars are already paying for that.”

She said voters in the 15th support access to abortion and more funding for public education.

“I have always been fiscally conservative, I have always on Budget (the House Budget Committee), managed to know where monies were, to appropriately spend and to cut when we can.”

“I’m a good fit for this district,” Lavender said.

Casey Burns, campaign manager for Koenig, said voters have known his position “against expanding Obamacare in Missouri for nearly a decade” and said voters will side with Koenig, “who backs ‘the Blue,’” versus Lavender, whom Burns said supported “radical” plans to defund the police.

Koenig’s emphasis on policing mirrors a similar strategy by other Republicans, including President Donald Trump and Gov. Mike Parson, who are looking to win support from suburban voters against the backdrop of a pandemic and an economic recession.

Koenig declined to be interviewed by phone for this article. Burns said all questions needed to be submitted in writing.

“My family and our experiences are very reflective of the people I hope to represent,” Koenig said in an email, asked why he was best suited to represent the district. “We are a working-class family; I work three jobs while my wife, Brooke, takes care of our five children.

“We want the same things for our community that most families do — affordable housing, strong public schools and safe neighborhoods,” he said, adding that he supports lower taxes and opposes government waste.

He also accused Lavender of advocating for the “defunding of our local law enforcement.”

Police, kids killing kids

Lavender responded: “No, I do not want to defund the police and have never advocated for that.

“I’m running for a Senate seat and they’re (the Republicans) going to put that out on every Democrat who’s running across the nation.”

Lavender kicked up some GOP criticism last month during debate over policing levels in the city of St. Louis, saying the city — where homicides are outpacing last year’s rate — was already one of the most heavily policed cities in the country.

The House was debating removing St. Louis’ residency requirement for first responders in an effort to attract more recruits; the St. Louis Police Department was down 143 officers as of August, the department has said.

Lavender had also noted overall crime — including property crime and violent crime — in St. Louis was down compared to a decade ago, according to city police statistics.

Rep. Mary Elizabeth Coleman, R-Arnold, tweeted city homicide figures, showing 55 homicides this July compared to 22 last July.

“Imagine looking at this data and thinking, ‘good news!’” Coleman said.

Lavender, in an interview, said she was asking “if there were other things we could be doing” to curb bloodshed that were outside of the scope of the special session Gov. Mike Parson had called.

“The bill that we had in session,” Lavender said, “... will most likely do little to nothing to resolve the root causes of crime in our cities. We did nothing to address how many guns were in children’s hands.

The House also approved legislation last week allowing people to give firearms to children without their parents’ permission.

Parson had sought to increase the penalty to crack down on criminals who use guns unlawfully and then give them to minors to avoid being caught with them by police.

But Republican lawmakers said current law would allow grandparents or other family members to be charged with a misdemeanor for taking children hunting without their parents’ permission. The Senate still must approve the change before the measure heads to Parson’s desk.

“I’m not talking about a rifle and I’m not talking about hunting,” Lavender said. “I’m talking about hand guns.

“Kids are killing kids. When children have guns, then they end up killing each other. We did nothing to address that.”

Fundraising, polling

Nationwide, suburban voters delivered Democrats the U.S. House in 2018, but in Missouri, success for the party remained elusive.

Last year, in one sign voters were no longer shunning Democrats in west St. Louis County, Democrat Trish Gunby won a November special election to represent the 99th House District — which Koenig represented until January 2017 — defeating Republican Lee Ann Pitman by eight percentage points, 54% to 46%.

A recent poll commissioned by Missouri Scout showed Lavender tied with Koenig — each registering 43% support — with 14% of voters undecided.

In a possible headwind for Koenig, 43% of those polled said they had a favorable opinion of Trump, while 53% of respondents said they had an unfavorable opinion.

Fifty-one percent of the 585 likely general election voters polled had a favorable opinion of Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden compared to 44% who had an unfavorable view.

The poll, conducted Aug. 19-20 by GOP-leaning Remington Research, had a 4% margin of error.

Burns brushed off the results, noting past Missouri Scout polls before the August primary that didn’t match the eventual result.

Lavender led Koenig in fundraising through most of July, according to Missouri Ethics Commission records.

Through July 23, Lavender’s campaign had raised $544,000 and had $452,000 on hand heading into August.

Koenig’s campaign had raised more than $254,000 and had $182,000 on hand.

Lavender’s Purple PAC had raised another $161,000, while Koenig’s Freedom’s Promise PAC had raised more than $134,000.

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