The race to become the President Pro Tem of the Missouri State Senate is beginning to take shape. The current seat holder, Republican Ron Richard of Joplin is term-limited and will be retiring at the end of the year.
Fellow GOP member Mike Cunningham of Rogersville made a formal announcement for the post in the form of a press release Friday.
The President Pro Tem is the day-to-day leader of the chamber although the state’s Lieutenant Governor is officially the President of the Senate.
Republican Senate Majority Floor Leader Mike Kehoe was sworn in as Lieutenant Governor Monday by new Governor Mike Parson, who vacated the seat to be head of state when fellow GOP member Eric Greitens resigned June 1.
The position of Senate President Pro Tem will almost assuredly go to a Republican as the party holds a supermajority in the chamber and isn’t likely to lose that status in November’s general election.
Senator Cunningham is in the middle of his second four-year term and is term-limited to exit the body in 2020. Lawmakers can serve a total of eight years in both the House and Senate for a total of 16 years.
Cunningham is unusual in that he’s been in the legislature for 16 years already, having taken two years off from holding office to serve as Republican Senator Jay Wasson’s Chief of Staff.
He told Missourinet he chose to work for Wasson instead of choosing to run against him and now serves in the Senate seat adjacent to Wasson’s, the 33 District which includes portions of south and southwest Missouri.
Cunningham said his accomplishments in his business career are just as important as his legislative service in qualifying him to lead the upper chamber.
“I’ve worked for big corporations – Coca-Cola USA – and owned a private business,” said Cunningham. “I started out with $50 and seven employees and when I sold it I had 135 employees. That’s what I would consider successful.”
The 71-year-old ran his own grocery store, Cunningham’s Fresh Foods in Marshfield before retiring in 2001 while he was employed with Coca-Cola USA in Atlanta during the late 1970’s. Cunningham attributes part of his success to being able to surround himself with good people in business.
As a leader in the Senate, he says he’ll let his fellow Republican majority determine what issues are tackled. “I don’t intend for leadership to run the Senate,” Cunningham said. “I expect the caucus to run the Senate. And I would follow the direction of the caucus.”
He said it’s likely that the Senate GOP next year would look at putting further restrictions on consumer lawsuits as a means to boost business and support measures to promote education and jobs.
Cunningham thinks improving employment opportunities will go a long way in tackling other hurdles the state faces. “If we can get jobs, bring people to Missouri, keep what we have plus grow jobs, then that provides tax money for education. (It) just takes away a lot of problems that we have with unemployment and education.”
Republican Bob Onder of Lake Saint Louis is also making a high profile bid to be the next Senate President Pro Tem. The first term chamber member is already a member of leadership as the Assistant Majority Floor Leader.
St. Charles Republican Tom Dempsey retired as President Pro Tem in 2015 to further pursue a career in the private sector. Senator Kehoe then moved up to Majority Floor Leader, opening up the assistant position to which Onder was elected.
Onder contends his experience in leadership qualifies him to lead the upper chamber but notes his track record as a leading fundraiser is beneficial to fellow Senate Republicans.
“That’s only a small part of the job but a very important one, because in the tough political times that we’re going through right now, having the resources so that our candidates can get their message out, I think is critical,” said Onder. “I think I’ve shown that I’ve been able to do that.”
He said he hasn’t chosen to issue a news release announcing his run for President Pro Tem because the process will be an internal election, but contends he’s spoken to Republicans and Democrats alike about his intention.
“My colleagues have all known for some months now,” Onder said. “I’ve visited, I believe, with everyone on both sides of the aisle. I think everyone knows that I am running, and we’ve talked about my vision for the future of the Missouri Senate.”
Onder served one term in the Missouri House in 2007 and 2008, before leaving to run for Congress. He finished second in a five-candidate primary that year which led to Blaine Luetkemeyer’s initial victory to claim a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.
The board-certified Allergy, Immunology and Internal Medicine doctor considers himself a leading proponent of Republican legislative priorities.
“We are a pro-life caucus,” Onder said. “We believe in economic opportunity, and I believe part of that includes labor reform, tort reform, tax reform, regulatory reform. I’ve really been front and center on a lot of those issues.”
Order must be reelected in November in order to compete for the leadership role, as will another Senator interested in the position, Republican Dave Schatz of Sullivan.
Schatz signaled his desire to seek the leadership role in October 2017 when he told the Missouri Times he felt it was time to make his intentions known and start building relationships.
“If the first spot is available, why settle for second?” Schatz told the publication. “I think I’m qualified to do it. First, I have to get re-elected in 2018.”
Schatz had previously served two terms in the House, where he was elected to his first two-year term in November 2010.
A forth Senator said to be interested in the President Pro Tem position is Ed Emery of Lamar. Emery is a second term Republican who would be serving in leadership for the first time in final two years in the term-limited office. He previously served four terms (2003-2010) in the Missouri House.