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Democrats' rural support further eroded

November 11, 2002
By: Jason McLure
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - Like the buffalo that once dominated Missouri's prairies, Democrats have vanished from the state's rural landscape.

Last week's election highlighted the near-extinction of the Democratic party outside Missouri's cities and suburbs. Of the 14 state senators from rural districts, 12 are Republicans. Nine rural senate seats were up for grabs last Tuesday, and Republicans won all of them. Democrats also lost roughly a third of their 30-odd rural House seats.

Jeff Smith, a political scientist at Washington, said Democrats will continue to lose ground in rural Missouri without a major shift in electoral strategy, adding that he thought President Bush's campaigning in Missouri had given Republicans a boost statewide.

"The Democrats don't really have a great national figure you can bring in," Smith said. "Who are you going to bring in to the heartland? Not Al Gore, not John Kerry, definitely not Dick Gephardt."

Smith added that the choice of Democratic leadership in the legislature did not bode well for attracting support in rural areas. Smith said Senate minority leader Ken Jacobs, D-Columbia, and House minority leader Mark Abel, D-Festus, are too liberal to drum up support in rural, conservative areas of the state.

He added that Gov. Bob Holden, despite his rural roots, was carried to victory in 2000 largely on the votes of urban and suburban voters along the Interstate 70 corridor.

Smith picked out Attorney General Jay Nixon as being the only prominent Democrat who might be able to garner significant support in rural areas.

David Webber, a political science professor at MU, said the Republican shift in outstate Missouri is a reflection of national trends.

"Republican legislators now outnumber Democrats across the country," he said. "I saw a figure that in 1976, 70 percent of state legislators were Democratic."

Webber added that Democratic positions on cultural issues, such as gun control and partial birth abortions have particularly hurt them with rural voters.

Joel Paddock, a professor of political science at Southwest Missouri State agrees. He said that the political parties were once defined more by economic issues, but over the past thirty years, social and cultural issues have become equally important.

"Issues like school prayer, the role of women in society, guns, abortion rights, and gay and lesbian rights haven't replaced economic issues, but are now on par," Paddock said, adding that Republicans' more conservative positions on these issues have better matched the views of rural America.

One of the few remaining rural Democrats in the Senate, Harold Caskey, D-Butler, disagrees that there is a values gap between Democrats and rural America. Caskey said the national focus on security issues and the D.C. area sniper in the weeks leading up to the election played to the Republicans' strengths. He said the Democrats' inability to highlight their differences on economic issues hurt them on election day.

Washington University's Smith agreed that national issues may have harmed rural Democrats, but that the decline of the party in rural Missouri is nothing new.

He said age and term limits have thinned the ranks of Missouri's more conservative "yellow-dog" Democrats. Many of Missouri's rural Democrats have their roots in settlers from Virginia 150 years ago, who voted Democratic when that party was considered the more conservative.

He said the "yellow-dogs" had been able to maintain control in part through tradition and personal loyalties in their districts. With term limits removing more than a third of the state's Senators and nearly half the House members, Republicans have been able to accelerate their takeover of rural Missouri.

Still, MU's Webber said the Democrats do have policy positions that could garner rural support, including protection of water quality, the condition of rural schools and access to medical care. The key for Democrats, he said, is to focus attention on these issues rather than on more symbolic ones such as abortion, guns and affirmative action.