“As Missouri goes, so goes the nation” — or so the saying goes. Yet, the state hasn’t lived up to its bellwether status for a long time, at least when it comes to predicting presidential elections: Missouri has chosen a Republican in every one since 2000, even though the national popular vote favored Democrats four out of five times.
No year was more decisive than 2016, when brash outsider Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton in Missouri by 19 points. That carried over into the governor’s race, in which brash Republican outsider Eric Greitens had trailed Democratic candidate and then-Attorney General Chris Koster by 17 points in polls as recently as a month before the vote.
And now one year into the turbulent Trump presidency, Missouri politics is mirroring some of that turmoil.
Both Trump and Greitens promised to shake up the political landscape, and with Republican majorities in both the House and the Senate, both seemed well-positioned to do just that.
Then the governing began in Missouri, and it was replete with accusations of gubernatorial bullying in offices just off the Senate floor and friends of the governor tweeting out the personal cellphone numbers of Republicans who didn’t fall in line.
Rep. Gail McCann Beatty of Kansas City, the House Democratic floor leader, said at the end of the 2017 session that it was an unprecedented experience in her seven years in the statehouse.
“You get on the floor and you get into heated debates, but the personal attacks, I have not seen that,” Beatty said on the KCUR political podcast Statehouse Blend Missouri. “This is the first time since I’ve been there. You know it really is kind of sad. We are adults.”
Some lawmakers’ disagreements with the governor were policy-based. But many Missouri officials have publicly challenged the governor’s ethical practices as well — similar to how congressional Republicans have done so to Trump.
Led by Republicans like Sen. Rob Schaaf of St. Joseph, Missouri lawmakers have questioned the support Greitens receives from a nonprofit called A New Missouri, which is staffed by the governor’s former campaign aides and housed in the same building as his campaign, but isn’t required to disclose the donors of its millions of dollars. And the office of Attorney General Josh Hawley, a Republican who is running for the U.S. Senate, has begun investigating the use of a secretive app by the governor and his staff, one that sends text messages that self-destruct after they’re read, a possible violation the state’s open-records laws.
Greitens and Trump share another frequently applied political method: Responding to pushback from lawmakers in their own party in sometimes deeply personal ways. Last January, before a Senate vote on whether to allow a pay increase for state legislators to take effect, Greitens pulled Sen. Denny Hoskins, a Republican from Warrensburg, into an office. Hoskins told KCUR last year that he thought the governor’s experience as a Navy SEAL was coming into play.
“He’s used to people doing what he tells them to do,” Hoskins said on Statehouse Blend Missouri. “There were some political threats made, as far as going to the media if this raise passed, and things like that. So it was very tense.”
The next day, Greitens used Twitter to publicly shame Hoskins, saying he had “betray[ed] the people.”
Senators Wieland and Hoskins owe the people an answer. Why did they vote to betray the people and raise their own pay?
— Eric Greitens (@EricGreitens) January 31, 2017
The deepening divisions in Missouri politics have extended beyond the Capitol. Blue areas of the state—namely Kansas City and St. Louis—have gotten bluer, while red areas have helped Trump maintain an approval rating in the state several points higher than the national average throughout his term.
That partisan divide is felt acutely by Democrats in right-leaning parts of the state, like Lynne Broyles-Greenwood of Chillicothe.
“It pains me desperately coming from rural Missouri to see the ugliness that is out there,” said Lynne Broyles-Greenwood at a Kansas City event sponsored by KCUR. She drove nearly 100 miles to attend. “My roots are in the dirt of north Missouri so I’m not moving. I’m the only one left after three generations. But it breaks my heart to see that division. And I don’t know how to find the common ground.”
The political disparities between urban and rural areas aren’t exclusive to Missouri, but many find them especially pronounced. Democrats failed to field candidates in dozens of rural legislative districts in many recent elections, in spite of the party once having strong support in the state’s agriculture industry.
But this year could be different. Rep. Lauren Arthur of Kansas City, the Democratic state party treasurer, has been part of expanding outreach efforts to train and support new potential legislators.
“Our job is just to recruit candidates who we'd like to work with, who we think will do a good job of representing their districts respectively and to provide an option for folks who are maybe tired of what they've seen and endured over the last several years,” Arthur said.
For all the efforts, political discourse in Missouri in 2018 may come down to revelations in the past month about Greitens’ personal life. Just hours after his State of the State address, St. Louis television station KMOV reported that Greitens had admitted to an extramarital affair that happened in 2015. The report also included allegations that the governor had taken photographs of the woman while she was blindfolded and bound. Ever since, policy debates have taken a backseat to salacious details and investigations of alleged blackmail and abuse.
Is media distraction from issues like the state budget or proposed tax cuts one more effect of “a year of Trump” on Missouri politics?
“I think [Trump’s] effect on politics in general is that everything now is somewhat like a reality show, and everything is so shocking and everyone is so outraged, until the next outrage,” said Ryan Silvey, who recently left the Missouri Senate to join the state’s Public Service Commission.
“And there’s always another outrage,” he added.