JEFFERSON CITY — Republicans and Democrats are pouring resources into a St. Louis County-based Missouri House district in a special election that could have repercussions for both parties going into the 2020 election season.
For Democrats, who control less than one-third of the seats in the Legislature, winning the 99th District could persuade skeptical donors to open their checkbooks for candidates in other suburban races. For Republicans, winning would further solidify the party’s hold on power in Missouri.
Democrat Trish Gunby, 58, faces Republican Lee Ann Pitman, 49, on Nov. 5.
Both live in unincorporated St. Louis County. Their district includes parts of Ballwin, Manchester, Twin Oaks and Valley Park. Former Rep. Jean Evans, R-Manchester, resigned her post in January to become executive director of the Missouri Republican Party.
As of June 30, Gunby had raised $62,917 and had $44,163 on hand.
Her fundraising has outpaced Pitman, who had only raised $3,601 as of June 30. But, the Missouri House Republican Campaign Committee and potentially other groups are expected to make up the difference and then some.
“We intend to spend whatever it takes to keep it red, provided we have the funds,” said Casey Wheat, executive director of the GOP House campaign committee.
The race is one of six special elections scheduled for this November to fill Missouri House vacancies, but it is the only one officials in both parties consider competitive.
President Donald Trump won the district by 5 percentage points in 2016; he won Missouri by 19 percentage points. Former Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill won the district last year but ultimately lost statewide to U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley.
Evans won 53% of the vote in 2018, beating Democrat Mike LaBozzetta.
“I would say that the district is very purple,” Gunby said. “You have started seeing in the last couple of elections a shift. So I believe in terms of that being solidly Republican, I think that’s changing.”
Gunby, on her website, has addressed issues such as guns, LGBT rights and abortion — unlike some Democrats who have run in mixed districts in the past.
She has advocated for gun control measures and has criticized an anti-abortion law signed by Gov. Mike Parson in May.
Gunby also supports passage of the Missouri Nondiscrimination Act, which would outlaw discrimination in housing and employment based on a person’s sexual orientation.
She has voiced opposition to charter school expansion, something Pitman has not done. Gunby also wants some kind of consolidation of the St. Louis area that “doesn’t repeat the missteps and inequities of Better Together.”
Gunby said the issue she talks about most is making voting more accessible.
Meanwhile, Pitman has so far not run as a Republican might in a safe GOP district. She does not mention Trump on her campaign website or on her Facebook page. Her campaign website does not mention abortion or gun rights.
She does mention loosening regulations and says the state should provide “quality, affordable” health care to seniors. On her website, Pitman also expresses support for emergency workers, veterans and moving “our education system forward.”
“My plan is to go out and listen to the people,” she said when asked how she would win a swing district. “For myself, I work full time as a mom raising my kids. I think I’m going to be able to relate to people.”
Pitman also said she wanted to work with municipal leaders on economic development projects.
“She’s a smart, capable, competent woman and I don’t think she will align herself super closely with President Trump knowing where he’s at in that district as far as numbers go and approval rating,” Wheat said.
Pitman, an accountant, said she thought it was a good time to run because her two adult sons had recently moved out of the house. Her husband is Wesley Pitman.
Gunby said she left her marketing career in the 1990s to stay at home with her two children, who are now grown. Her husband is Mark Gunby. She was formerly on the leadership board at her church, Manchester Methodist, where she started a social justice ministry last year.
Success in special elections does not necessarily lead to success in the general election.
Last year, Democrat Mike Revis won a special election to represent the 97th House District, which covers a nearby portion of the St. Louis area in Jefferson and St. Louis counties.
In February, when the election was held, Revis was able to broadcast his anti-right-to-work views to the pro-union district. He won the election, taking nearly 52% of the vote compared to Republican David Linton’s 48%.
In November, amid a high-stakes U.S. Senate race between Hawley and McCaskill, Republican Mary Elizabeth Coleman won 56% of the vote; Revis garnered 44% and lost the seat.