I’ve had a bit of experience with covering politicians in my 19 years reporting. I’ve at least been able to ask a question or two of two former presidents, 10 sitting senators (sitting at the time I talked to them, at least) and governors of four states.
But one thing I do not have much experience in is reporting on U.S. Senate elections. That’s because I have not lived in many places with competitive elections or Senate elections at all, recently.
I covered appearances in forgettable reelection campaigns by Texas Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison in 2006 and John Cornyn in 2008, where they trounced little-known Democrats.
Then, as fate would have it, I did not live in another state with a U.S. Senate election until 2016. Even though each state has two Senate elections every six years, they did not have one when I lived in Texas in 2010, nor when I lived in Georgia in 2012 or Washington state in 2014. I don’t know what the odds of living some place without a Senate race for three consecutive elections are, but they can’t be high.
I reported on potential Senate elections before they got very far, but was never still in the state for the actual election. I covered a speech before a Georgia Republican group in late 2012, when Sen. Saxby Chambliss was considering whether to seek another term in 2014. I reported on a couple of obscure candidates’ possible interest in seeking the Senate seat, which Robert Costa, now with CBS News, reported without crediting me (I’m pretty sure he got the info from me, because no one else would have thought to ask those candidates if they were running for Senate).
Finally, I covered Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden when he was running for re-election in 2016. But it also was uncompetitive. Even though Wyden is a pretty liberal Democrat, he not only won the state, he won the conservative town that I covered (where Donald Trump won easily that same election). It helped that Wyden had town halls in every county in the state each year, so people got to know him.
Then, again, there were no Senate elections when I lived in Oregon in 2018 or Missouri in 2020. So that is one dull election in the last 14 years, or six election cycles, for me.
That obviously changed in a big way this year, with 21 Republicans and 11 Democrats seeking the seat being vacated by the retiring Sen. Roy Blunt.
I was kind of looking forward to asking the Senate candidates what they would do for our area, if elected. We had a great response from the candidates in both parties for our stories on our newly redrawn U.S. House district, even hearing the top candidates commit to keeping an office in Washington, and I hoped for more from the Senate candidates.
In his time in office, Blunt helped secure earmarks to provide funding for the new Missouri River Bridge in Washington and the East Central College Business & Industry Center. He also worked with Democrats to pass the infrastructure bill that could finally help expand Highway 47 to four lanes. Plus, Blunt was usually reachable if we had questions about things going on in D.C.
We wanted to ask the candidates trying to replace Blunt if they planned to continue with the work he has done for our area. It didn’t go so well, with only local Sen. Dave Schatz and Mark McCloskey, who both ended up with less than 3 percent of the vote, agreeing to be interviewed when I wrote a story on the race.
But it looked like we would get another chance on Monday, Aug. 1, the day before the primary, when Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt (who went on to win the Republican nomination) held a campaign event at the Tilted Skillet in Washington. We were told there would be an opportunity to ask Schmitt questions after the event, so, off we went.
It turned out to be memorable, but not helpful to our readers. I woke up Monday to see Yamiche Alcindor, an NBC News correspondent and host of Washington Week on PBS (who replaced the aforementioned Robert Costa in the role), was in Washington. That led me to think the event would be a media circus, one of the things I do not miss from working at papers in larger towns.
Sure enough, I arrived to see Alcindor working under a canopy outside the restaurant. Then, inside, St. Louis media parachuted in, waiting for Schmitt.
After emerging, Schmitt didn’t address any issues specific to Franklin County, from what I could tell. He discussed suing school districts that had mask mandates, but did not even say one was in nearby Pacific. I’ve never seen a candidate so guarded.
After his stump speech ended, Schmitt went around the restaurant shaking hands with attendees, but, noticeably, did not have a question-and-answer session with the audience.
After he finished shaking hands with the audience, Alcindor was waiting for Schmitt, peppering him with questions about Trump’s pending endorsement. Schmitt made an effort to answer a couple of her questions before rushing to the back of the restaurant.
While I think Alcindor is a good television commentator, asking Schmitt what he would do if Trump did not endorse him did not seem like a particularly important question. We all know Schmitt would have just continued supporting Trump and seeking Trump’s support.
So the national audience, most of which isn’t even voting in the primary, got to see this ambush. It was entertaining, in the way Borat interviews with politicians are funny, but the local audience got hosed out of getting answers on what Schmitt will do for our area, if elected.
It was basically a metaphor for the state of media in the country, with oblivious cable news talking heads sucking up all the air in the room and leaving local news suffocating. And, of course, many people see this and lump us in with the bombastic national media.
I don’t really blame Alcindor. Schmitt still could have answered our questions.
I waited around to see if Schmitt might come back out. Finally, a campaign worker motioned for the people from some media outlet (presumably not Franklin County based) to come to the back of the restaurant. I thought they might have been motioning at me too, so I followed them, only for a campaign worker to tell me the other outlet had an exclusive interview, and Schmitt didn’t have time for us.
For the record, Democrats aren’t doing any better with their candidates. Their Senate nominee, Trudy Busch Valentine, was the only candidate who Missourian reporter Will Skipworth called for a story on that primary who refused to be interviewed.
With a few months before the general election, let’s hope both candidates will take time to let us know if they will offer our area the support Blunt has.