Republicans hope to snap drought in seat held by Dick Gephardt

Sunday, January 12, 2003

ST. LOUIS -- The last time a Republican held Missouri's 3rd Congressional District, the state's own Harry Truman was calling the White House home, Uncle Miltie ruled TV in its infancy, and the New York Yankees beat the crosstown Brooklyn Dodgers in the World Series.

Still, the GOP drought since 1949 isn't all that deflating to Missouri Republican Party chief John Hancock, who notes that Republicans hadn't controlled both chambers of the state Legislature since 1948 -- until now.

And with Dick Gephardt, the Democratic holder of the 3rd District seat since 1976, not planning to seek another term next year as he chases the presidency, Hancock believes "the GOP is going to have a real shot in a very competitive district."

"We look forward to the battle," Hancock said.

While Hancock acknowledged that much depends on the strengths of candidates ultimately nominated, Missouri Democratic Party spokesman Mike Kelley calls any GOP salivating is a bit premature.

"I think the chances of the Republicans taking the 3rd District in 2004 are about as good as the chances of Missouri having an ocean neighboring it," Kelley said. "This is a solid Democratic seat, and we're going to continue to hold it. Any speculation otherwise is maybe a pipe dream.

"But let me be clear that a Democrat will be sent back in place of Congressman Gephardt," Kelley added.

No 15th term

The speculation -- and jockeying -- began Monday, when Gephardt, re-elected in November, announced he would not seek a 15th term in 2004. That same day, State Sen. Steve Stoll, the Festus Democrat who helped carry the water for Gephardt in last year's congressional redistricting, threw his hat in the ring.

Stoll had told Gephardt's camp days earlier of his desire to succeed the congressman, having been tipped by Gephardt in a pre-Christmas telephone call that Gephardt would seek the White House for the second time since 1988.

"I'm one of those people who has seen things as opportunities. They've come along, and I've been fortunate enough to seize those opportunities," said Stoll, a former six-year state representative starting his second term in the Senate.

Stoll's would-be rivals haven't yet made their intentions clear in the 3rd District, which Hancock says may be ripe for Republican picking without Gephardt -- at 61, a Democratic heavyweight -- on the ticket in November 2004.

Last November, Gephardt got 59 percent of the nearly 207,000 votes cast, easily outdistancing Republican challenger Catherine Enz's 39 percent. It was the lowest showing among any of Missouri's nine U.S. representatives who won re-election.

Gephardt has seen his winning percentages shrink over the years. But redistricting last year was said to allow him to capitalize on population shifts by bolstering the district's portion of the Democrat-heavy city of St. Louis, his hometown.

Still, Gephardt's 59 percent showing in November was just 1 percent better than two years earlier before remapping of the district, which also includes part of south St. Louis County, as well as Jefferson and Ste. Genevieve counties.

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