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GAG Issues split Democrats

September 22, 2004
By: Katheryn Mohr
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - Republicans and Democrats alike argue Democrats have lost ground in rural Missouri due to the "GAG" issues--guns, abortion and gay marriage.

"Republicans definitely took them [Democrats] to the cleaners as far as these issues are concerned," said Rick Hardy, MU Associate Professor of Political Science.

Debates surrounding gun issues include opposition by most Missouri Democrats to the legalization of concealed weapons.

On abortion, Democrats oppose Republican legislative efforts to restrict abortion rights.

Gay marriage refers to the constitutional amendment sponsored by Republicans to define marriage solely between a man and a woman-- an issue the Democratic governor fought to keep off the November ballot.

One of the Senate's rural moderates Steve Stoll, D-Jefferson County, agrees Democrats have lost some seats in rural Missouri as a result of these "GAG" issues.

"The thing that probably causes Democrats to lose over these issues is because they feel like that in order to be a good Democrat they have to be pro-choice and anti-gun," Stoll said.

"I think that is where they go wrong because I think you can still be a good Democrat and be pro-life and protect people's second amendment rights," Stoll said.

Stoll was one of three Democrats to override Governor Holden's veto of the concealed weapons bill in 2003.

In January, Sen. Harold Caskey, D-Butler County, and Sen. Jim Mathewson, D-Sedalia County, the other two supporters of the override, will be term-limited out of office.

The 2000 election results would suggest Democrats could lose those two Senate seats held by Caskey and Mathewson -- both of whom are blocked from running for re-election because of term limits.

In the 2000 gubernatorial election, Republican Sen. Jim Talent defeated Democrat Sen. Bob Holden in both Mathewson's and Caskey's districts.

And in 1999, out-state constituents in both of these districts once again went against their party platform by an overwhelming majority voting to legalize concealed weapons.

Stoll said he thinks the Democratic party needs to look for candidates that best reflect the values of their district and to accept the fact that there are going to be Democrats with differing opinions on these wedge issues.

When asked if Democratic constituents from rural areas feel out of step with the national Democratic party, the Senate Democratic Leader -- Sen. Maida Coleman, D-St. Louis -- conceded "that is the $64,000 question."

Added Coleman, "I spend a considerable amount of time in a state of dichotomy over this issue."

Coleman said the turnover from Democratic to Republican control is not entirely a result of the backlash surrounding these "GAG" issues but that it also has to do with the complacency of Democrats.

"Democrats got elected and went right to work with the business of legislating and we forgot to watch the back door," Coleman said. "And that was Republicans nipping at our heels and making issues out of guns and abortions."

Coleman said that these issues hit on an area that is most sacred to people...their bodies, safety and morals. And she said, it is no wonder these issues created a wedge between the constituents to the detriment of Democrats being elected.

"I think at times we are so deep in the forest that we can't see the trees and it is time for Democrats to regain the support of their constituents by becoming more involved in the concerns of their districts," Coleman said.

Hardy, the MU political science professor who ran for U.S. Congress in 1992 as a Republican, pointed out what he called a notable trend in Democratic voting.

Beginning in 1990, Democratic constituents from out-state, or rural Missouri, began split-ticket voting on the national and sometimes statewide level.

"The bottom line is that issues do matter to people and Missourians don't just blindly vote straight ticket anymore," Hardy said. In past years, people would vote straight ticket but more and more we are seeing people voting split-ticket politics."

Hardy agreed rural Missouri Democrats have to adapt to circumstances and issues important to their constituents.

He said a smart Democrat is one that is willing to buck the national party view and adopt the more conservative view, which is the will of their constituents.

"Successful politicians adhere to this idea of practical politics, which involves always playing towards your constituents," Hardy said.

"If rural Democrats do not follow heel to toe with Tip O'Neal's adage that 'all politics are local'and blindly adopt the line of the liberal National Democratic party than they are on the road to disaster," Hardy said.