A statewide election when the state’s incumbent secretary of state is on the ballot is always a little strange, given that the secretary of state for a state (as opposed to the federal cabinet position) is the state’s chief election authority. So, you have an elected official overseeing an election that will determine the next step in his political career: four more years in office with an even stronger platform for his next career move – or a couple of months to clean out the offices and call in political debts for a new job. The November 3 general election in Missouri, like most other things in 2020, is a uniquely toxic version of this paradigm.
The incumbent, John “Jay” Ashcroft, belongs to the same Republican Party as the president, Donald Trump. Ashcroft has been silent or supportive of this divisive president. On September 5, Ashcroft joined a float parade on Table Rock Lake in the Ozarks in support of Trump, with the Trump sign aboard his ship more than twice the size of the Ashcroft sign affixed beneath it. Trump won Missouri by a half-million votes in 2016, and clearly Ashcroft believes that riding in, rather than rocking, the Trump boat will help him win the election he is duty-bound to oversee.
The awkward and toxic thing is that Trump is acting to undermine electoral democracy in the United States and in particular in Missouri, where the pandemic goaded Republican legislators to pass special voting-by-mail options for this election so that people can stay out of harm’s way yet still exercise their voting rights. To undermine this, Trump has at best dodged the issue of foreign interference in American elections and actively moved to weaken the United States Postal Service to disrupt by-mail voting. Trump is on record as saying that Republicans are more likely to lose high-turnout elections. Ashcroft, who swore to protect our elections and their integrity, has not criticized Trump’s actions. Duty-bound to make sure all eligible voters can vote and all votes will be counted, he has advised people not to use the vote-by-mail option because those votes might not be counted.
As such, Ashcroft has handed a campaign platform to his challenger on November 3, Democratic nominee Yinka Faleti, a U.S. Army veteran. With good evidence, Faleti is accusing the incumbent of at least acquiescing to voter disenfranchisement rather than actively opposing it, as Ashcroft swore to do. While conceding that all Missouri voters should use either the absentee ballot option or vote in person because Ashcroft clearly cannot be trusted to count mail-in ballots, Faleti is calling for Ashcroft to count all mail-in votes posted by election day and not only those received by election day. In short, Faleti is running as a secretary of state who actually will perform the office’s most critical function: to protect elections in Missouri and their integrity. The American spoke with Faleti about the campaign.
The St. Louis American: The American endorsed you in the primary, though you ran unopposed, and now has endorsed you in the general election on November 3, when you will face the Republican incumbent, John “Jay” Ashcroft. What is new for the campaign since your primary victory?
Yinka Faleti: I’m thrilled to have had the endorsement of The St. Louis American. It is inspiring to have the support of The American, and I know many readers learned about our campaign when they read about it in your paper.
Since our victory in the primary, we have redoubled our efforts to demand safe, secure and accessible elections in Missouri. On August 18, I anchored a press conference in Jefferson City, where Democratic leaders from the Missouri State House of Representatives, including House Minority Leader Crystal Quade, state Representative Kip Kendrick and state Representative Ashley Bland-Manlove, and I joined our voices to call for all ballots postmarked by – not just received by – election day to be counted. This was in response to continued efforts by Jay Ashcroft to sow distrust in vote-by-mail in Missouri and the systematic dismantling of the United States Postal Service by the Trump administration.
We have also seen a significant increase in grassroots support for our campaign. We raised more money in this last reporting period – July 24 through August 29 – than we did in the entirety of the 90-day span of the second quarter of this year. Most of those contributions were from Missourians giving small-dollar gifts. Increasingly, Missourians are coming to understand the importance of the Secretary of State's Office to our democracy, and they are showing their support for our campaign of voter inclusion, rather than Jay Ashcroft's policies of voter suppression.
As we get closer to November 3, our campaign is continually outworking and outpacing our competition and showing that Missouri is ready for leadership of character and competence in the Secretary of State's Office.
The St. Louis American: Both Ashcroft and you ran unopposed in your respective primaries, and he got 620,822 votes whereas you got 470,955. He got more votes on August 4 than anyone else on the ballot and almost 150,000 more votes than you did. How do you close a gap that huge?
Yinka Faleti: First, the August primary was obviously not a head-to-head match-up between Ashcroft and me. As such, these are not numbers we can compare. Comparing these votes totals within our respective party primaries is a bit like comparing apples to lemons. Historic election data tell us Republicans tend to be more enthusiastic about voting in August, while Democrats hold most of their voting energy for November.
We know that our campaign of voter inclusion and our vision for a Missouri where every eligible voter is able to cast their ballot in a safe, secure and accessible election is more attractive to Missouri voters than the last three and a half years of Ashcroft's voter suppression tactics. No matter your political leanings, everyone wants to be represented by leaders of character and competence – two values I internalized during my years at West Point and in the U.S Army. Ashcroft has demonstrated time and again that he lacks both competence and character, and we will continue to highlight that contrast in the final stretch of this campaign.
The St. Louis American: I want to press on the primary numbers a little more. Arguably, they reveal that the Ashcroft name is ageing well. It could be that even Republicans who defect from the party of Trump associate Ashcroft senior with a more sane era in their party. How do you overcome the name-recognition gap and what could be nostalgia among even those Republican voters who are defecting from Trump?
Yinka Faleti: I’ve actually had conversations with many Republicans over the past year. I’ve asked them about Jay Ashcroft. One thing has become abundantly clear: Jay Ashcroft does not have the regard of Republicans that his father did. Remember, he has been defeated in a race before in 2014. His defeat then demonstrated that riding coattails can take him only so far. He may have a known last name, but that is the only thing he has. That is why our campaign has outraised him in this election cycle and outraised him 7:1 in the second financial quarter of this year alone. Missourians are looking for a leader, not someone who relies on their family name to get what they want.
I am proud of my background. From earning my American citizenship, to earning my appointment to West Point, to serving in the U.S. Army, to my law degree from Washington University, to the family my wife and I have built – all have come from the type of hard work and character it takes to lead this office. We overcome the name-recognition gap by reminding voters of how Ashcroft could give a care less about their constitutional rights and how I will fight tooth and nail to protect the rights of every eligible voter in Missouri.
The St. Louis American: We know elections are largely about turnout. How are you going to get out voters? In a pandemic? What is the message? What is the strategy? Who are your allies?
Yinka Faleti: Democracy demands participation. The pandemic has laid bare the leadership vacuum that exists in Missouri. The good news, though, is that it doesn't have to be this way. We are reaching out to every group in the state, whether it's through our digital infrastructure, paid advertising, working with the press, or – most importantly – the personal referrals of the thousands of people we have met in person, on Zoom calls and socially distanced events. We are showing them what effective and meaningful leadership looks like and helping them realize the power we all have to change our state and our nation for the better.