Support The Bulwark and subscribe today.
  Join Now

Missouri’s Last Sane Republican

And what it means that he was defeated by a ghostly absentee candidate.
by Jim Swift
August 23, 2022
Missouri’s Last Sane Republican
(Composite / Photos: Twitter / GettyImages)

Ballwin, Missouri
I’m at the Wolf Cafe, a restaurant in this western suburb of St. Louis with bright murals on the walls and a dozen craft beers in the taproom—and the man sitting next to me, Shamed Dogan, shouldn’t be here. He’s a politician, a member of the Missouri House of Representatives, and nearing the end of his eighth year in office. Term limits prevent Dogan from running again, and rather than try for a seat in the Missouri Senate, he decided to run for county executive of St. Louis County.

So Dogan shouldn’t have time to grab a bite with me. It’s a weekday. He should be running his general election campaign—seeking voters and donors, setting up meetings and shaking hands. Except earlier this month, he lost his primary.

The candidate who defeated Dogan is an unknown quantity. Katherine Pinner’s own neighbors didn’t even know she was running for office. Despite not even having a working public phone number and no campaign office, she beat Dogan by 12 points.

While Pinner’s primary win came out of nowhere, her fate in the general election, especially since she is apparently averse to campaigning, is all but certain: The incumbent executive, unpopular Democrat Sam Page, will coast to victory in the fall. St. Louis hasn’t hired a Republican for the job in close to forty years. For a Republican to pull off a win would require someone who could peel off Democrats and independents. It would require, in other words, a candidate like Shamed Dogan, the state legislature’s lone black Republican—and arguably Missouri’s last sane Republican.

In St. Louis, locals who need a quick way of sizing up other locals they meet ask where they went to high school. Shamed (pronounced sha-MED) went to one to one of Missouri’s best, Mary Institute and St. Louis Country Day School, and after that, he attended Yale, where he studied political science and philosophy.

After graduating he went to Washington, first working for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, then for Missouri’s Jim Talent, a workhorse then in his one term in the Senate—a staunch conservative, by pre-Trump standards. Dogan then came back to Missouri to help the state GOP run coalitions.

For a few years, Dogan left politics for a job as a fundraiser for Washington University in St. Louis. But the politics bug bit him again and he ran for the statehouse in 2008, coming in second in the primary. A couple of years later, he became an alderman in the town of Ballwin. In 2014, he ran for state representative for the 98th district on the county’s western edge, winning that race and each reelection until he bumped into the term limit this year.

Missouri used to be considered a “bellwether” state, but over the last several years, it has gone dark red. Yet Dogan has stuck to his principles. In 2016, he declared that if Donald Trump won the presidential nomination, he wouldn’t vote for him. Lots of Republican politicians were like that back then; remember Mike Lee yelling Nooooooo from the convention floor in Cleveland? Lee and many other original Never Trumpers became sycophants for Trump in the end, but Dogan never bent the knee. Did that decision cost him the nomination for county executive this year?

I’ve known Dogan for years and chatted with him on occasion about Missouri politics, but we’d never met in person, so I took an afternoon to meet him on his home turf. I wanted to ask him: What the heck happened? Why did you lose? It turns out the answer is more complicated than just his refusal to support Trump.

“It was a damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation, almost,” Dogan says. “’Cause I think it was mostly people didn’t know either of us. And so they just saw two names on the ballot, and my name is weird, and they voted for the name that is normal, Catholic.”

He has a point here: St. Louis is deeply Catholic. It’s not clear whether “Katherine Pinner,” the vanilla name alongside Dogan’s on the ballot, shares that religious affiliation with voters; her avoidance of the press made it difficult to know much of anything about her. But it’s easy to see how her name would have played next to “Shamed Dogan” among populist conservative voters.

Dogan tells me that from the onset he decided to run a general election campaign. This makes some sense: His opponent was unserious, unknown, and didn’t even seem to be campaigning. While she avoided the public eye, Dogan appeared in parades this summer with t-shirts and branding. It looked like it was going to be a cakewalk.

St. Louis County is big, diverse, and fraught with problems. It has 91 municipalities, some of which are smaller than my HOA in Northern Virginia. On the north side, home to predominantly African-American communities, police have systematically targeted residents with tickets for low-level offenses and other strategies that have made them into prominent local antagonists. Dogan’s affluent Ballwin exurb is different from Ferguson in important ways, and it doesn’t have the same problems with belligerent policing. But it’s in the same county. The problems are not far from any St. Louis resident’s mind.

During our interview, several locals stop by to greet Dogan; an affable and honest guy, he’s hard to dislike. But dislike him the base did: The most ardent, Trump-supporting Republicans know him well—and hate him for his apostasy. Specifically, they hate that he refused to co-sign a letter from shameless crackpots questioning the 2020 election results for typically red states that went for Biden. Most of his colleagues did sign it. The quack behind it—a “racially conscious anti-vaxxer”—resigned his post and moved to Florida to become a consultant and worship at the altar of Ron DeSantis.

The sorts of people who vote in GOP primary races and who showed up to vote in this one were likely Dogan haters, then. Either that, or they were simply uninformed and had a choice between his name and one that wouldn’t be out of place in an American Girl doll catalogue.

Dogan doesn’t say it outright, but it seems clear to me that he lost the county executive primary because of exactly this combination of plain racism and opposition to his anti-Trumpism. Republican voters love minority candidates when they’re on their side, no matter how nuts they are, because there are so few of them. In this case, being not nuts harmed Dogan’s chances. It’s a shame on Missouri GOP voters, who have decided to go all in on nuts.

Dogan tells me a story about one of his constituents—a woman named Rene Artman, the chairwoman of the St. Louis County GOP. Artman invited Joe Arpaio, the controversial former Arizona sheriff, to be the keynote speaker at the county party’s “Lincoln Days” fundraiser. Dogan took serious issue with the selection, telling Artman, “Like, what are you doing? Having him here is our keynote speaker? This is going to repel suburban voters.” His once-professional relationship with Artman quickly soured; in response to Dogan’s criticism, he says, “She got mad at me and said I called her racist.” Dogan had actually said that about Arpaio, not Artman, he explains—“and that’s the problem . . . these people, when they hear the word ‘racist,’ it’s like you’re accusing them. No. I’m talking about that dude specifically, because he was literally convicted of being a racist.”

It may not surprise you that Artman told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that she was working to get the STL GOP to rally around Pinner following the latter’s unexpected primary victory. Perhaps Artman should instead look inward and think about why a QAnon-adjacent, vaccine-conspiracy-promoting candidate who beat an accomplished state legislator should now deserve anyone’s support.

Alas, Pinner has eluded Artman and doesn’t want her help—or anyone’s, apparently. She claims to be running a “grassroots” campaign (a shock to the neighbors who didn’t know she was running) eschewing corporate and political influence; she reportedly refuses to accept donations to keep her hands clean of “special interest groups.” It’s a sure way to lose. And despite her wildly conspiratorial beliefs—the Post-Dispatch reports that Pinner “repeated false conspiracy theories that COVID-19 vaccines were part of a global scheme to control people by covertly inserting microchip into people’s bodies” on her website, although the controversial material appears to have been removed—the party is still trying to back her. (They will need to establish contact with her first: The Post-Dispatch also reports she has been unreachable by phone, basically unresponsive to email, and absent even during visits to her home.) All in on nuts.

Late in our conversation, in good anti-Trump Republican fashion, Dogan tells me about his political evolution. Everyone in this camp is on their own journey; Dogan’s now has him hoping for Trumpist Republicans to experience the electoral consequences of their decisions:

It’s taken me a while to get there. We just have to get our asses beat in a significant way in like several elections for things to turn around. The Trumpist way just has to be electorally defeated or else people are going to what succeeds to keep succeeding, you know? Why would they stop?

I’m biased, but I agree: The only way Republicans—especially Missouri Republicans—are going to change course is if they start paying a price for the one they’re on. They’ll catch some consequences in the now-doomed St. Louis county executive race, a contest Dogan offered to them as a potential pickup. But there’s no indication that there will be an incentive to do anything differently in most other races outside of Kansas City and St. Louis. Sycophancy has a ceiling, but the reality of the electorate in many of these districts has pushed it sky-high.

Dogan will become unemployed at the end of his term, which may or may not involve a special session on tax cuts. As a state representative, he hasn’t earned much more than Missouri’s low-paid teachers, but like them, Dogan dedicated his time to the job. He is now considering a return to the fundraising career he walked away from to become a public servant.

The party that once brought him back from Washington to help them run coalitions and bring more Shamed Dogans into their fold doesn’t seem to need him anymore. They’ve moved on from the coalition model entirely, choosing instead to consolidate their base while tearing down dissenters and propping up lunatics. They don’t even care whether those lunatics can win anymore, provided they’re solid on the only thing the GOP cares about these days: fealty to Trump.

Jim Swift

Jim Swift is a senior editor at The Bulwark.