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Missouri's Political Path From Purple To Light Pink

Oct 26, 2017

For a century, Missouri was considered the ultimate swing state: Its voters backed every presidential winner but one from 1904 to 2004.

In the last 40 years, it has had four Republican governors and five Democratic ones, and the state legislature shared a similar split in power. But in recent years, political scientists — who once saw the purple state as a microcosm of the country — have started to notice a change.

“I would say light pink,” says Beth Vonnahme, a political scientist at the University of Missouri Kansas City. “The way Missouri is set up geographically, where you have large swaths of Missouri that are very deep red, I would say, and then pockets of Missouri that are very blue. And so I think that sort of together makes it pretty light pink.”

Light pink, she says, and growing redder by the year.

“Part of it is that Missouri is kind of the quintessential rural-urban divide,” Vonnahme says. “So there’s, the only urban pockets in the state are along I-70 … [Kansas City and St. Louis], and then in between with Columbia, with the University of Missouri, and then the rest of the state is really rural. And so you have very conservative areas of the state, and you have your typical suburban, which could go either way, and then you have the blue.”

The reason Missouri was so good at predicting the next president, Vonnahme says, was that it looked a lot like the rest of the country. And that history goes back to the Civil War when Missouri was literally a battleground state — made up of both Union and Confederate sympathizers.

By the turn of the century, Missouri — like the country as a whole — was starting to boom: It was home to the largest railroad hub in the U.S., it had grown into the fifth-largest state and St. Louis had become the fourth-largest city.

Anyone who wanted to become president needed to win those votes.

In 2008, Missouri cast its vote for John McCain, who won the state by just 4,000 votes. He didn’t, however, win the White House, and since then, Missouri’s gone to the Republican candidate every time.

What changed? Demographics, for one thing.

“Demographically, it’s less similar to other areas of the country, certainly the southwest and the south, which tends to be much more diverse,” Vonnahme says. “So that certainly makes it more likely to lean Republican.”

Missouri is 20 percent whiter than the country as a whole. Latinos make up just 4 percent of the state’s population, compared with 18 percent nationally. And as its population has remained stagnant, residents are growing older and more reliably Republican.

One person who knows the state’s voters very well is Democrat Jason Kander, the former secretary of state for Missouri. Last year, he ended up just a few points short of unseating Missouri’s incumbent Republican Sen. Roy Blunt.

“Everybody really, I think, recognizes that there was a bit of a wave last year,” Kander says. “I got over 220,000 votes from folks who also voted for President Trump. I did that running as a progressive. So I think it’s pretty clear that when you have candidates that are fighting for what they believe in, you have a chance to win. Also, it’s important to remember that the cycle before that when I ran in 2012, President Obama lost the state that day by almost 10, and I won on the same day. So I think it’s clearly a state where it’s always up for grabs.”

Whether it’s Missouri or any other red or purple state, Kander says when Democrats “make our argument, we have a chance to win.”

“Voters will forgive you for holding the position that they don’t also hold, as long as they know that you truly believe what you’re saying,” he says. “And — and this is important — that you believe it because you care about them, because you think it’ll make a difference in their lives. When that’s the case, folks will consider you.”

Hillary Clinton didn’t make much of an argument in Missouri in the last election, holding only a few events in the state. Kander lost his Senate race by three points, while Clinton lost Missouri by almost 20.

“It’s not like people were saying, ‘Oh, that’s great,'” Kander says of how Trump voters in Missouri saw the GOP candidate. “They were saying, ‘I’m willing to give that a try.’ Well, what’s happened now is he’s not made the transition from doing that for himself to doing that for the country. And that is why you’re seeing people really sour on him in a lot of ways. I’m seeing people come up to me, and they’re like, ‘I voted for both of you, and I wish I hadn’t voted for him.’'”

Janice Divinni, an office manager and an independent voter, says she’s not happy with Trump.

“I’m not impressed,” Divinni says, speaking at a voter forum in Lee’s Summit, Missouri. “I think it’s all about his ego, and not about the people. It’s all about his pocketbook, and not about the people.”

Mark Bredemeyer, a local attorney, disagrees.

“Personality-wise, I’d do things a lot different,” he says. “But I think, as a Republican and as a conservative, I think [Trump’s] been very, very committed to, and consistent with, Republican and conservative principles.”

And Bredemeyer says he thinks there’s something about Trump that spoke to Missouri voters.

“What ended up happening there is you had the most unconventional candidate that you’ve seen, that came out and came across as very genuine and very real,” he says.

Travis Smith is with Axiom Strategies, one of the largest Republican consulting firms in the country, based in Kansas City.

“The state, on the whole, I don’t know that I would say it is getting more conservative. There’s always a certain contingent of the base that would describe themselves as both economic and social conservatives. I don’t know that I would think that that contingent is growing,” Smith says. “But there is a, whether you want to call it a populist sort of piece of the electorate here — and that piece is obviously growing, it goes without saying, and Republicans have done a good job at capturing that part of the electorate in recent cycles.”

Sen. Claire McCaskill is one of the last Democrats in statewide office in Missouri, and she’s facing a tough re-election campaign next year. She’s already won two Senate races in Missouri.

One reason McCaskill has done well where other Democrats haven’t is because she’s a “savvy politician” who communicates well with voters, Smith says.

“There is something similar to her style, her manner, the way she speaks to her voters, and the way, frankly, that we saw Donald Trump speak,” Smith says. “She’s able to come across as kind of a real individual. Now, all that being said, I don’t agree with virtually anything that Claire does, says or stands for. But I think that on a smaller scale, there is some of that kind of plainspokenness that voters like from her.”

But it’s unclear if that authenticity will continue to keep McCaskill in her Senate seat. If she loses, it would paint once-purple Missouri another shade of red, Vonnahme says.

“I suspect it’s going to continue sort of in the slight pink-to-red range,” Vonnahme says of what’s ahead for the state in the next decade. “I don’t see it likely to turn around, unless something really dramatic happens at the national level. I don’t see it moving back into the purple-light blue column anytime soon.”

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