At a Midtown candidate forum on Sept. 18, 2022, incumbent Democrat Rep. Betsy Fogle listens closely to her opponent, Republican AJ Exner, talk about how their district is split between Republicans and Democrats. (Photo by Shannon Cay Bowers)

First-term incumbent Democratic Rep. Betsy Fogle is pursuing another two years in the Missouri House, but the Republican candidate AJ Exner has other plans.

In a seat long held by Republicans, House District 135 has been represented by Fogle since she won election in 2020 by a mere 76 votes. 

Can she do it again on Nov. 8, or will Exner return the seat to the GOP?

The redistricting that took place in this year’s legislative session will likely play an important role in the outcome of this race. Most notably, the district shed some southern constituents, but spread its border into north Springfield. Its new borders extend from Sunshine Street to north of Interstate 44 and west of National Avenue to east of Highway 65.

Exner and Fogle are both recognizable figures with recognizable names in the community, both for the work they and their families have done in Springfield. Incumbency often gives one candidate the upper hand, but that will be challenged in this competitive district.

From public health to public policy, Fogle promotes Dem platform in a very Republican legislature

Fogle was born and raised in Springfield and went to Springfield Public Schools and Missouri State University, only leaving to obtain her master’s degree in sociology from the University of Arkansas. 

Brian Fogle, Betsy’s father, is the president of the Community Foundation of the Ozarks and recipient of several leadership awards, including the Springfieldian award in 2010. Her family has been involved in a number of community foundations and nonprofit organizations across the region. 

Prior to being elected representative, Fogle’s career was primarily focused in public health, including six years at the Jordan Valley Community Health Center that provides dental, medical and behavioral health services to low-income families. 

“Plain and simple, I am a proud Springfieldian,” Fogle says on her campaign website. 

Rep. Betsy Fogle speaks during a Missouri House floor debate April 5, 2022. (Photo by Tim Bommel/Missouri House Communications)

Fogle joined District 132 Rep. Crystal Quade as one of the two Democratic representatives in southwest Missouri after her defeat of Republican incumbent Steve Helms in 2020. In such a competitive district, Fogle acknowledged she had to “walk that line very well,” which has, at times, caused her to vote against her own party. 

“In my first two years, I focused a lot on access to health care, good paying jobs and strong public schools,” Fogle said. “Those are the issues that, when I’m out knocking doors, my constituents want and those are the issues that I focus on up in Jefferson City.”

In order to achieve her policy goals, she stressed the need to bring balance to the state government, as Democrats currently only hold 49 of 163 seats in the House. The GOP has a super majority in both chambers of the Missouri legislature, which means that a bill could be proposed, passed and signed into law without a single Democratic vote. 

“I think the whole state will be served better by having more balance in Jefferson City,” Fogle said.

Exner’s experiences working for and with government led him to candidacy

Exner, an Arkansas native from Bentonville, came to Missouri for school, where he attended Southwest Baptist University and got his master’s degree in plant science at MSU. Upon graduating, he decided to stay and has since lived here with his wife and family.

He has worked as a DNA criminalist for the Missouri State Highway Patrol and as the client relations manager for Dynamic DNA Labs where he saw public and private partnerships expand amid the onset of the COVID pandemic. 

This led to Exner working with entities all across the state, including the Department of Health and Senior Services, the Department of Mental Health and the Division of Youth Services, among others. 

Exner considers himself a “political junkie,” and said he has always made a point to pay attention to local reporting and the goings on of Springfield City Council. Coupled with his professional experiences and connections, it eventually led him to apply to be appointed to city council in 2018. While falling a few votes short, several council members provided encouragement to Exner to continue pursuing a political career.

AJ Exner, Republican candidate for House District 135. (Photo: Shannon Cay Bowers)

“I saw, in the sense of having a young family in the Springfield area, feeling some of the effects of what’s going on nationally that bleeds into our local government and local ecosystem that, for me, thought it was a good time to help the people more,” Exner said. 

Exner is aware of the challenge of unseating an incumbent, but is hopeful the competitiveness of the district ups his chances come Nov. 8.

“I look at the race between myself and [Fogle] as kind of a heavyweight fight,” Exner said. “It is, I feel, like two great candidates that believe differently about a handful of things.”

STORY CONTINUES BELOW

Different outlook on state role in local schools

Exner and Fogle both support a state role in local schools, but in different areas. Exner specified “very high” overarching state standards that would be beneficial to maintain in order to be competitive with other states, whereas Fogle focused on ensuring financial resources from the state for underpaid teachers and underfunded public schools. 

Missouri starting teacher pay ranks near dead last in the U.S., according to a 2022 report by the National Education Association. 

(Photo by Dean Curtis)

“When we talk about funding our schools, when we talk about supporting schools, of course a lot of that has to fall to the state level,” Fogle said. “But when it comes to curriculum specifically, I have not supported statewide initiatives in the legislature to reform what curriculum looks like because I believe that that should be in the jurisdiction of a locally elected school board.”

Despite having his oldest child in the private Discovery School for kindergarten, Exner said that was primarily due to the burdensome “half in-half out” approach of SPS during the early days of the pandemic, Exner moved his son into public school prior to first grade. Going forward, he “wholeheartedly” believes in the resources, options and capabilities of what SPS can provide. 

“When you look at the needs of … Strafford or Rogersville, how would they take those standards and apply those to a group in their local jurisdiction compared to Springfield, or some of the larger districts,” Exner said. “I’d say the heavy lifting of that probably needs to go on the local school boards.”

Differing views on gun laws and law enforcement

While any type of major gun reform would face significant challenges in the state legislature, that doesn’t stop Fogle from being cautiously optimistic her Republican counterparts are more willing to have conversations around the issue than they have in the past. 

“I have heard, for the first time, expressed interest from Republican colleagues to tackle gun violence,” Fogle said. “I think, in large part, we’re seeing a willingness from the other side of the aisle to have some of these common sense conversations related to gun violence and prevention.”

She said the Second Amendment Preservation Act, passed in 2021, was the wrong approach.

“We know that it makes local law enforcements’ jobs harder, yet we passed it anyway,” Fogle said. “I think it’s yet again an example of extreme legislation that doesn’t benefit Missourians, it doesn’t have the best interest of Missourians at the forefront of that policy especially when our law enforcement officials were asking us not to do it.”

Gun wall at Eagle Pawn & Jewelry. (Photo by Shannon Cay Bowers)

Exner, while not directly in opposition to firearm restrictions in and of themselves, said that he hasn’t seen any responsible legislation, particularly regarding “red flag” laws.

“I think there’s a lot of concern in regards to the enforcement of any red or yellow flag laws that would then impact them in regards to — if I say something that might be considered insensitive on social media, would that be considered a yellow or red flag to some people?” Exner said. “In the end, what is the line of insensitivity and there’s so many layers into that.”

Exner worries that responsible gun owners will not be able to effectively protect their families due to irreplaceable harm that could be the result of “red flag” laws. 

“I think it’s just a very slippery slope that, if it’s done responsibly, that’s one thing, but I think there’s a lot of concern in regards to how that legislation would be worded and then how the enforcement of that legislation would end up,” he said.

For Exner, the most important issue of the House District 135 race is safety, particularly as it relates to violent crime. Rather than invest in the adoption of gun laws, he thinks we should expand the resources and capabilities of our local law enforcement agencies.

Opposing views on abortion

On the campaign trail, Exner has strongly emphasized the phrase “clarification,” as it relates to the existing abortion laws in Missouri, which outlaw the procedure in almost all cases, without exceptions for rape or incest. When it comes to elective abortions, Exner expressed steadfast opposition. 

“Somebody who just chooses to do it because [they] don’t want this child and don’t want to deal with the ramifications of this, totally against that,” Exner said. “I don’t feel like that’s fair to the life that has been created, who doesn’t get a say in that moment.” 

As someone who worked on hundreds of sexual assault cases for the Missouri State Highway Patrol Crime Laboratory, Exner thinks there needs to be a different approach to the issue of abortion for these victims. Nationally, about three million women have experienced rape-related pregnancies, and 1 in 20 rape victims of reproductive age experience pregnancy, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Center for Biotechnology Information, respectively. 

In order to craft an effective, clarifying law that both protects the life of the unborn and sexual assault victims, Exner said it was important for legislators to have conversations with medical professionals.

“I think that we need to be able to distinguish between elective abortions, miscarriage management and health care and not necessarily bleed them all together,” Exner said.

People gather outside the U.S. Courthouse Friday evening to protest the June 24, 2022 U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning Roe V. Wade. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

During her time in the public health sphere, Fogle witnessed first hand how unintended pregnancies, especially as a consequence of sexual assult, can burden mothers, some of whom are still children themselves. 

She shared concern about discussions regarding banning some forms of emergency contraceptives and IUDs for low-income women through the state’s Medicaid program. She thinks that goes far past the “normal” abortion discussion.

“The policies that we now have in the state of Missouri are so far extreme, that if a child came in and had been a victim of rape or incest now has absolutely no ability to make the decision that is best for herself with the guidance of both her medical practitioner and her loved ones,” Fogle said. 

“A lot of people will say that we use that as a talking point, or that it’s the exception to the rule. I very much disagree.” 

Fogle also pointed out that one in four women in Missouri are victims of sexual assault.

“When I head back to Jefferson City, we have to continue to have these conversations to bring balance to this incredibly extreme legislation and make sure that we don’t live in a state where a woman will die before she’s able to get life-affirming care,” Fogle said.

Campaign finance: Fogle’s October report showed $122,000 on hand

Based on the most recent campaign finance reports available for both candidates, including Fogle’s October quarterly report and Exner’s report filed 30 days after the primary election, Fogle is out-raising and outspending Exner. As of Oct. 17, Fogle has just over $122,000 at her campaign’s disposal. On Sept. 5, Exner had $19,100 on hand and he said Monday his updated report will not show major changes.   These reports may not reflect spending by independent outside organizations on behalf of either campaign.

Significant contributors of Fogle’s campaign include the LQBTQ+ organization PROMO PAC, the Missouri Chamber PAC and former O’Reilly Auto Parts executive Charlie O’Reilly. Exner, whose campaign finances are managed by treasurer Terri McQueary, the former Missouri Association of Republicans “Republican of the Year,” has received donations from the Missouri Alliance PAC and local businessman Curtis Jared.

(Editor’s note: Daily Citizen Board Chairman Thomas Carlson and his wife Chandler, as well as board members Jim Anderson and M. Suzanne Shaw, have made donations to Fogle’s campaign. Anderson also hosted a fundraiser for Fogle. Board members play no role in news coverage decisions.)

Despite the advantages Fogle has between incumbency and a potentially “bluer” Springfield, she understands winning reelection won’t be an easy task, and continues to campaign with that in mind. 

“I think this election will be very close, one direction or the other, just based on the competitive nature of House District 135,” Fogle said. “We are not taking this for granted. It’s our privilege to represent such a competitive district and go out and knock the doors of thousands and thousands of people.”

Exner, too, has come to terms with whatever the outcome may be, balancing confidence in his victory with acceptance of defeat.

“In the end, if I can look back on the night of Nov. 8, and feel like I gave it everything I had, that I tried my best and was true to myself, that’s what I feel confident about,” Exner said. “I feel good about it, but I also feel like if I just do everything I can, treat people with kindness and respect, then that is going to be the thing that I can kind of put my hat on.”

Where and when to vote, and what you need to bring (Click to expand story)

When and where: The general election will take place on Nov. 8. Polls open at 6 a.m. and close at 7 p.m. You can identify your polling location here. Information on absentee voting in Greene County can be found here

Finding your district: Information about what state House and Senate district you might live in can be found here.

What you need: This is the first election that Missouri’s new photo ID law will be in effect. The Secretary of State’s website provides information about what forms of ID will be acceptable.

Jack McGee

Jack McGee is the business and economic development reporter at the Springfield Daily Citizen. He previously covered politics and elections for the Citizen. Before that, he worked at documentary film company Carbon Trace Productions and Missouri State University’s student-led newspaper, The Standard. He’s an MSU graduate with a Bachelor of Science degree in journalism and a minor political science. Reach him at jmcgee@sgfcitizen.org or (417) 719-5129. More by Jack McGee