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COVID-19 Turns Missouri Governor's Race Into A Competitive Contest

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Here in this country, maybe you've heard, we're having an election, and actually the governor's race in Missouri is one of the most competitive in the country this year. It was not always that way. The Republican incumbent, Mike Parson, seemed to have an easy path to victory. And then the coronavirus hit. St. Louis Public Radio's statehouse reporter Jaclyn Driscoll examines how the pandemic may tip the scale in favor of the Democratic candidate.

JACLYN DRISCOLL: Governor Mike Parson's path to victory seemed to be all but a sure thing. When he took the podium in January to deliver his State of the State address, he was able to hang his hat on a stronger economy and better-than-average unemployment rates.

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MIKE PARSON: The state of our state is strong. And by working together, we will be ready for an even better future.

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DRISCOLL: Flash forward a couple of months, and the coronavirus pandemic has caused immense challenges to the state's health care system and decimated the economy. It quickly turned the race from what seemed like quite a reach for State Auditor Nicole Galloway into one of the most competitive gubernatorial matchups in the nation.

NICOLE GALLOWAY: Of course, this is the most pressing issue and the most important thing that the next governor will have to address. You know, Governor Parson's approval rating has dropped 22 points because of his poor handling of COVID. This has been a test of leadership, and he's failed that test.

DRISCOLL: Parson's response to the virus is something he touts as balanced. He was one of the last governors to issue a statewide stay-at-home order, but he let most businesses stay open. He wanted the decision left up to local governments.

PARSON: And I've been pretty open about that the entire time, how diverse our state was. And it's going to be affected at different times on that. And that's why I think it was important to leave it up to locals.

DRISCOLL: Parson refused to implement a statewide mask mandate despite the White House Coronavirus Task Force urging him to do so. And he rarely wore a mask.

PARSON: Today we're talking about a mask. We've been talking about a mask for months, and it's almost become a political issue. We all know that.

DRISCOLL: The 65-year-old and his wife contracted the virus in late September. He was asymptomatic, and it didn't change his state response.

PARSON: Everybody doesn't sure have to live in fear. You have to live in concern, but you don't have to live in fear of it.

DRISCOLL: Galloway is offering a starkly different approach. She wants to provide more guidance for schools to resume in-person learning, something Parson is leaving up to individual districts. She also wants to put a mask mandate in place.

GALLOWAY: Clearly demonstrating and communicating that masks are a ticket to freedom is important - that it is a science-backed, data-driven approach to containing the spread of the virus so we don't have to shut down again.

DRISCOLL: It's a campaign approach that seems to be resonating with Missouri voters. Galloway has been able to attract much more individual donations than the governor and received crucial backing from the Democratic Governors Association. Missouri has transformed from a swing state in the 2000s to one that Donald Trump won by nearly 19 points. But State Representative LaKeySha Bosley says Galloway could benefit from a better performance from Biden and Harris.

LAKEYSHA BOSLEY: So I think that this gives a lot of momentum to the Democratic Party. But I also want to tell the Democrats, you know, this is not a time to just get lazy. This is a time to amp up the volume more.

DRISCOLL: But Parson backers like Republican State Representative Mary Elizabeth Coleman says Parson has had to make tough decisions during unprecedented times.

MARY ELIZABETH COLEMAN: I think that he is making a lot of good decisions about addressing things that Nicole has, for better or for worse, not had to weigh in on.

DRISCOLL: Most if not all polls show Parson is leading. For Galloway to win, she'll need to regain lost ground in rural Missouri and have a strong show of support in urban areas as well. It'll come down to November 3 to show just how influential a pandemic can be.

For NPR News, in Jefferson City, I'm Jaclyn Driscoll.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOUSE ON THE KEY'S "PHASES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.