BOWLING GREEN, Mo. — For decades, as other parts of rural Missouri turned red, voters in northeast Missouri sent Democrats to Jefferson City and backed Democratic statewide candidates.
That changed starting in 2010, though Republicans and Democrats said the most marked shift was in November 2016, as then-candidate Donald Trump touched a nerve with residents who’d seen jobs leave and economic fortunes sour.
It’s been a political shift that may make it harder for Democratic candidates to win competitive races for the U.S. Senate or statewide offices in the 2018 midterm elections— and beyond.
“Democrats became so secure that they were going to win every election, they just gave up trying,” said Mary Ann Lovell, a longtime Democratic activist from Louisiana, Missouri. “We allowed the Republicans to take over. We became complacent and that was the big thing.”
But even with the Missouri Democratic Party pledging to make a concerted effort to gain back ground in rural Missouri, the changes in the area showcase the challenge ahead, especially because Democrats have had a lot of trouble fielding candidates against well-funded GOP incumbents.
Stretching from the northern edge of the St. Louis metropolitan area to the Iowa border, the largely agricultural region doesn’t have a town with more than 20,000 people in it. But it’s had an outsized role in politics, as voters sent scores of Democrats to the General Assembly, many who got their start as county and city officials in northeast Missouri.
As a result, northeast Missouri produced some of the state’s most powerful Democratic politicians, including Gov. Lloyd Stark, U.S. Rep. Clarence Cannon, and, of course, U.S. House Speaker Champ Clark. Clark, a Bowling Green native, nearly became president in 1912 but lost to Woodrow Wilson.
Chad Perkins is a deputy with the Pike County Sheriff’s Department, and a Republican committeeman. But it wasn’t always that way.
“My dad was a Teamster for 25 years,” Perkins said. “So we grew up believing that the Republican Party wasn’t just wrong, but they were somehow evil. You know, and they didn’t care about the middle class and working class people in America. So that’s where I grew up. Today, not only am I now a Republican, but so is my dad, who believed that for all those years.”
Due to the shift, Republicans now hold every single state House and Senate district in the area — a decade ago, Democrats had a majority. They’re also gaining ground on county commissions and countywide offices such as coroner and sheriff.
Trump plays a role in this situation: He received anywhere from 70 percent to 80 percent of the vote in most northeast Missouri counties.
“I think people just said, ‘This is finally a guy that I believe what he’s saying and I believe when he gets in office, he’ll do exactly what he says he’ll try to do,’” said Pike County Commissioner Justin Sheppard, who knocked off a Democratic incumbent last year. “We all know that without Congress, it’s hard for a president to do what he wants to do. I just believe it came down to millions of people, a majority of northeast Missouri said this is a guy that I completely believe what he’s saying is what he really believes and what he’s going to try to do.”
While going door-to-door last year, Gale Frolos, a Republican state committeewoman who lives in Frankford, said she found people were fed up with “our economy, with lack of morals — everything seemed to be going downhill from what Americans, especially in our area, traditionally knew.” Trump, she said, came out “and said what we felt.”
“He doesn’t look like the traditional rural Pike County guy,” Frolos said. “But somehow, it was what he said. … From the way he appears, he’s down to earth. But he just sparked, I think it was hope. Maybe if we hadn’t had the past eight years we had, maybe it wouldn’t have worked that well for him.”
But the GOP shift was apparent well before the 2016 election, with the region’s residents citing a number of factors:
- A Republican congressman: As a U.S. representative starting in 1996, Kenny Hulshof was able to help direct money and volunteers to help GOP candidates win state legislative seats. These efforts weren’t always successful, but it helped develop an infrastructure for Republican candidates that didn’t exist several decades ago.
- Well-regarded, well-funded candidates: Many Republican state politicians gained recognition in their communities as farmers or businessmen. They also had lots of money, because political donors tend to direct their dollars to the party that controls the Missouri General Assembly, which the Republicans have done since 2003.
- A generational shift: Some political observers believe younger northeast Missouri residents tend to identify with Republicans. And the region’s older residents with longstanding Democratic ties are dying.
But there are two other factors, seen throughout the Midwest: social issues and the region’s economic decline.
Ralph Griesbaum farms row crops in Marion County, and generally supports Republicans. He said many voters here are punishing local Democratic candidates who may have more socially conservative views for the national party’s support of abortion rights and gun control.
“I know a gentleman who used to be, or is still, in the Democratic Party, who said … we either are poor messengers or we got a damn poor message,” Griesbaum said. “And I think that’s starting to come through a little bit. People are more conservative in northeast Missouri and in Missouri as a whole.”
The region’s economic stagnation and the population decline is to blame, too, said Elioa resident Holly Maffitt. Pike County, for instance, has a median household income that’s roughly $10,000 lower than the national average. And 14 northeast Missouri counties saw a combined population increase of 474 people.
“I think there’s a sense of great discouragement,” said Maffitt, who is part of Show Me Indivisible, a group angling to recruit Democratic candidates in northeast Missouri. “You’ve driven through here. You see our beautiful old town with a lot of empty spaces and deterioration. And that’s been very marked. And you hear so much that rural America is declining. It’s visible. It is happening. There’s huge structural changes in our economy. But I think people have just kind of felt overwhelmed by it — and they don’t see any answers.
“We don’t have the leadership to inspire,” she added.
One of the priorities for Missouri Democratic Party Chairman Stephen Webber is regaining ground in rural parts of the state, especially in 2018, when Missouri’s last two Democratic statewide officeholders, U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill and state Auditor Nicole Galloway, are up for re-election.
McCaskill has only lost one statewide bid: Her 2004 race for governor against Republican Matt Blunt. That was precipitated by a poor showing in northeast Missouri counties (and other rural areas of the state). Two years later, McCaskill ended up improving her performance in rural counties in her successful challenge of U.S. Sen. Jim Talent.
“McCaskill has shown an ability to connect with rural voters,” Webber said. “She does that by showing up, by having town halls. So we’re looking at sort of following her example and to build on that. So I think we’ll be successful in 2018, but it really is a long-term strategy.
“We didn’t lose seats in northeast Missouri overnight, we’re not going to take them all back in one cycle.”
Webber wants Democrats to run in 140 state House districts and every state Senate district next year.
But Lovell said the expense and stress of running for office scares a lot of people away in her part of the state.
“The people don’t want to put their name out there to get all the family matters, family trash and all the untruths told on them,” Lovell said. “So why put yourself through that turmoil to be called everything but human and accused of everything? Why put your family through that?”
Perkins said his rivals still have the challenge of distancing themselves from the national party.
“I tell people all the time that probably the most influential person for making the Republican Party strong in rural Missouri is probably Hillary Clinton,” he said. “You know, local Democrats get associated with these people on the nationwide level [who] don’t necessarily share their values.”
Still, some Republicans here aren’t willing to call their rise permanent.
“Because I think a lot of the votes he pulled in were these life-long Democrats who said ‘I can’t vote Democrat anymore. I can’t vote for Hillary Clinton. I can’t vote for Bernie Sanders. I can’t vote that far to the left,’” Frolos said. “I don’t know if they necessarily converted to becoming a Republican, but they voted against what that party had become and what it represented.”
If Trump can’t deliver on his promises to revive rural America, Frolos said Democrats in northeast Missouri will say, “‘Yeah, I’m not doing that again.’”
Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum