The Democratic Party in Missouri is struggling to stay relevant after sting losses in November’s election.
Two-term incumbent Senator Claire McCaskill lost to Republican upstart Josh Hawley, who was elected to his first public office two years earlier, by six points after polls showed a statistical tie. Incumbents win often if polls are within the margin of error. Political watchers Missourinet spoke to thought McCaskill ran a good campaign after holding 50 town hall meeting in small communities across the state, yet she lost decisively in rural areas.
With McCaskill’s loss, Democrats hold just one statewide office. And the victory which preserved that seat for the party was much closer than might have been expected.
State Auditor Nicole Galloway barely garnered 50 percent of the vote in a race in which her GOP opponent came to the election strapped with baggage. Republican Saundra McDowell had trouble with personal debt, was accused of exaggerating her role within the office of a former attorney general and had her residency called into question after claiming a Kansas address in 2013.
Democrats also failed to make any headway in the state legislature where Republicans continue to hold supermajorities in both chambers. Three victories in House districts were offset by three defeats, preserving the GOP’s 116-47 seat edge. Democrats also failed to make any headway in the state Senate after the party thought it had momentum when Lauren Arthur beat Republican Kevin Corlew in a special election for a Kansas City area seat earlier this year.
Additionally, hindering the party in the Show-Me State is the urban-rural divided among voters, a national phenomenon that has been especially unfavorable for Democrats in Missouri. Dynamic metro areas that are seeing economic and population growth are moving their states into Democratic control.
Colorado is increasingly turning blue after a suburban Denver Congressional seat flipped from Republican to Democrat in this month’s election. Similarly, in Nevada where the Las Vegas economy is strong with casino industry workers, a U.S. Senate seat flipped to Democratic hands this month.
University of Missouri-Columbia Political Scientist Peverill Squire thinks the lack of economic progress in St. Louis and Kansas City is hampering Democratic gains. “St. Louis and Kansas City haven’t struggled, but they also haven’t been thriving to the extent that a lot of other major urban areas have,” said Squire. “And they haven’t drawn in the young population that might have a different set of political views and values that would begin to reorient the state a little bit.”
Jefferson City based Democratic strategist Jack Cardetti acknowledges the urban-rural divide but says suburban and exurban counties near St. Louis and Kansas City decide statewide elections in Missouri. “Those are the areas that really gave Josh Hawley the victory in this,” said Cardetti. “Those are traditionally the areas in 2012 and 2006 that McCaskill ran and did really well in.”
Cardetti contends voters in Jefferson and St. Charles counties near St. Louis, as well as voters in Cass, Clay and Platte near Kansas City, swung the Senate race into a Hawley victory.
Terry Smith, a political scientist at Columbia College in mid-Missouri, thinks the urban-rural divide in Missouri and elsewhere reflects a desire among voters to be amongst like-minded individuals. “People for the last 10 or 15 years have been moving where their politically comfortable,” said Smith. “People used to move for economic opportunity. Well, people tend to be increasingly moving for political opportunity, or at least political solidarity.”
Neither political scientist Missourinet spoke to thought the state auditor race signaled a bright future for Democrats in Missouri, despite Galloway’s win.
Squire from the University of Missouri thinks the result indicates a statewide voter tilt toward Republican candidates. “To see Galloway win by a fairly narrow margin, given how completely inept her opponent was, and without any Republican backing behind her, suggests that there are a lot of people who are going to the polls in Missouri who are going to vote for the Republican no matter who that Republican might be.”
Smith from Columbia College thinks Galloway may have only won because Republicans chose the wrong candidate among their ranks. “My guess is that had any of the other three candidates in the Republican primary won, it would have at least been much, much closer and Galloway could have easily lost.”
McDowell, despite being troubled on numerous fronts, won the Republican primary with 193,000 votes and 33 percent of the ballots cast. Her three opponents included city of Ballwin Alderman Kevin Roach, St. Louis attorney and CPA David Wasinger and term-limited State Representative and financial advisor Paul Curtman.
Democratic strategist Jack Cardetti admits his party has hit a low point but remains optimistic. He contends the political environment swings back-and-forth in Missouri.
Cardetti remembers working for the Democratic Party in 2004 when Republican Matt Blunt won the governor’s race at age 33 and GOP U.S. Senator Kit Bond won re-election to a fourth term while the sitting Senator was Republican Jim Talent. “People were questioning whether or not the Democratic Party was a viable party, and literally the next two election cycles they went on a terror to win lots of those races,” Cardetti said.
In 2006, McCaskill started her run in the U.S. Senate by defeating Talent. In 2008, Democrat Jay Nixon began an eight years run as governor after Blunt announced he wouldn’t seek another term.