Midterm Elections in St. Louis

An AH-1 Cobra gunship outside the VFW Post 5077, in O’Fallon, a town in Missouri’s 2d Congressional District, where Cort VanOstran (D) challenged incumbent Ann Walker (R). Some 120 people waited in line to vote during November’s midterm elections.

If you were looking for a place to represent the split in the country last night, I-170 in St. Louis was a good place to start. For several days an electronic billboard near Saint Charles Rock Road shined forth, seeming to equate Donald Trump with Jesus Christ by captioning a photo of him: “The Word Became Flesh.”

The ad has been removed, and the group that claims to have paid for it said it was not suggesting that Trump is the Second Coming.

“But God does send his messengers to us,” the group said on Facebook, “and just as King David liberated the faithful in his day, President Trump is doing this today through his protection of the unborn, defense of our land against foreign invaders and standing up for Israel. He surrounds himself with champions for Christian Rights—Mike Pence, Neil Gorsuch, and Brett Kavanaugh. Compared to the disaster of a president we had in Obama, how is this not the ‘word become flesh’ for Americans?”

In Missouri the main show was a tight race for a senate seat, between incumbent Claire McCaskill (D) and Josh Hawley (R). McCaskill had an early, slight lead, and many believed it could signify a “blue wave” in the nation. St. Louis radio host Don Marsh cautioned that Missouri is no longer the national bellwether it used to be, due to changing demographics.

Missouri had eight House races and several ballot initiatives, including three propositions on medical marijuana and one to raise the minimum wage to $12 incrementally by 2023.

Saint Charles Rock Road, which runs east and west from I-170, could be seen as symbolic of two arms of our politics. East of the Trump billboard the road becomes Dr. Martin Luther King Drive and runs toward the City of St. Louis. This is the 1stCongressional District—all of the City and part of St. Louis County. It is urban, 48.9 percent African-American, and has about 740,000 people. Longtime House incumbent Lacy Clay (D), who is black, was running against Robert Vroman (R), a white 34-year old who flips properties in “distressed” neighborhoods in the District.

Five large cemeteries line the road, and the Gateway Arch is visible behind skyscrapers far away. Beautifully-executed portraits of men and women from the neighborhood, painted on sheets of plywood, replace many windows. Some of the backs of multi-floor houses have fallen off; they call these “dollhouses.”

“Vote November 6. Our future depends on it,” a billboard said. It showed two kids hugging; in the same frame was an ad for a funeral home.

Halfway to the River down this road is a historic African-American neighborhood called The Ville. Because housing covenants restricted where African Americans could live in St. Louis, The Ville thrived, starting in the 1920s, and was long the center of African-American life here. Notables from The Ville include Arthur Ashe, Chuck Berry, Dick Gregory, Tina Turner, and Robert McFerrin, the operatic baritone who was Bobby McFerrin’s father. Sumner High School, the first high school for African Americans west of the River, is in The Ville too, and not far away is Newstead Missionary Baptist Church, a polling place.

Michael Smith was outside the church, working the election, though he had gotten out of the hospital two days earlier. “I got to do my part too,” he said. “Someone’s got to do it. If everybody sit home and want somebody else to do it, it don’t get done. I don’t care—from the littlest job to the biggest job, I don’t care what you do in life, it’s got to be done by somebody.

“We start putting our jobs first, and putting our responsibilities first, instead of our wants and desires, greed and money, and property and power … set that aside. We always have to think back to what the scripture said: Help your brotherman.”

I asked about the election.

“I think it’s going fairly well,” he said. “There’s going to be some shocks. You’ve got a balance that’s got to be turned; you’ve got a balance that’s going to be lifted. And it’s got to be that in order to get things to start turning in a cycle. Somebody’s got to be moved. I think Democrats going to take over. But we’re going to see. My opinion don’t mean a hill of beans if people don’t come out here and put it on paper. We talk good. But do we act good?”

He said the majority of people in the neighborhood were “middle-class, working people.”

“It’s been really comin’ down,” he said, though only a few voters passed as we spoke. “I don’t know what’s happening inside, but out here, we’ve been having the traffic.”

The west arm of Saint Charles Rock Road points the other way. Just past I-170 is a big doll hospital, for example, and strip malls become a Macy’s and hotel suites. By the time you cross the Missouri River into St. Charles County, the population (about 396,000) is more than 90 percent white, and the median household income $81,000. Poll workers were caught there saying they “don’t care” about voter ID laws that allowed more people to vote.

Twenty-nine miles west of the Newstead Missionary Baptist Church is VFW Post 5077, in O’Fallon, a town in Missouri’s 2nd Congressional District, where Cort VanOstran (D) was challenging incumbent Ann Walker (R). Out front an AH-1 Cobra gunship canted forward on a stand as if in flight again. Some 120 people waited in line to vote. They were quiet in their support of what is seen now as the party of Trump, even ambivalent, and said they “leaned” Republican. They preferred not to give their full names and did not want to discuss later their reactions when races were called.

I asked Zach, an apprentice electrician, how he thought things would go.

“I wouldn’t ask me,” he said. “Because I came up here just for work, really. And I based it on who my union wanted us to vote for. That’s who I voted for. Because that’s who I stand for—brothers and sisters—and if that’s who they want my union to stand for and help better our union, that’s who I’m going to vote for.

“They send us out letters and whatnot in the mail, and consistently just push us and push us and push us and tell us who to vote for….. I mean, I just like to have a good union. There’s nothing better than having a good union around here. Anything that benefits us is pretty much what I came here to do.

“They just force it down you,” he said. “So that’s what I did.”

He normally went to trade school on Tuesday nights, but his teacher said to come out instead. “He’s like, ‘You have to go vote, you need to go vote, go vote.’”

Cheryl, who had just voted, said, “I haven’t seen it this busy, ever. Never.” But she begged off any other questions by saying she was from Minnesota, and that this was only her third or fourth year in Missouri. “I’ve been leaning more towards Republicans,” she said. “But I mean they both have points.”

A few miles further west, the sense of the City of St. Louis falls off quickly, with billboards for a gun show, trailer parks, and a Camper World with a parking lot filled with RVs for sale. The landscape opens to woods and fields. This is the 3d Missouri District, though still St. Charles County; incumbent Blaine Luetkemeyer (R) and Katy Geppert (D) were vying for the House.

Up a tight country lane lined with fallen leaves, another polling place, the KC Hall in Flint Hill, was packed. The town has 525 residents, 99 percent of whom are white. The parking lot of the KC hall held perhaps 200 cars and pickups on the concrete and in the destroyed lawn, with more waiting on Grothe Road to turn in. A statue of the Virgin Mary looked down with compassion at a political sign for State Senate candidate Patrice Billings: “Vision Courage Commitment.” (Billings got drubbed, 60-40.)

As I was headed home, the spokesperson for the RNC said on Public Radio that anything less than the loss of 27 seats in the U.S. House could not be seen as a referendum on President Trump. As of this writing, Democrats have gained 26 seats and control of the House, but the Republican Senate is strengthened.

In Missouri, progressive issues on the ballot passed (minimum wage; one of three medical marijuana propositions), but the state more often elected politicians not in favor of progressive issues. There are the usual divides of urban/rural and of race.

In this, the Missouri split, radiating from Trump, is as significant as elsewhere.

I called Michael Smith, the poll worker from The Ville, to get his thoughts. He had not heard the election results, so I told him about the House and that his district voted 80 percent blue, so Mr. Clay kept his seat. But McCaskill lost her seat to the Republican challenger, and six of eight Missouri House Districts voted red.

“Now this is going to be a tricky one,” he said. “You need to have somebody who comes in and knows how to move with the flow. And you’ve got to work with your partner …. That’s what made this country. We were a made country. We weren’t automatic.”

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.