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Northeast Missouri used to vote Democratic — until national politics overwhelmed the local

Wes Shoemyer, a former Democratic state senator, talks on the phone while in a semi truck
Brian Munoz
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St. Louis Public Radio
Wes Shoemyer, a former Democratic state senator, talks to his son after transporting thousands of pounds of corn grain to a local ethanol plant on Monday in rural northeast Missouri. The farmer won the most competitive state Senate race in Missouri 16 years ago, in an area that has since become politically ruby red.

Once a Democratic stronghold, the northeast Missouri-based 18th District turned to Republicans thanks to national realignment and perhaps conservative media.

Making Sense of the 6th — As Missouri has quickly swung from bellwether to deeply and reliably conservative, this series, a collaboration between St. Louis Public Radio, KCUR and the Midwest Newsroom, attempts to hear from voices on the ground in Missouri's 6th Congressional District, which spans the northern third of the state, to understand changes in the political landscape.

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Illustration by Yunyi Dai
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It was just 16 years ago that Wes Shoemyer won the most competitive state Senate race in Missouri.

The Democratic farmer from Clarence beat back a flood of Republican money and the efforts of high-profile Republican political figures to win Missouri’s 18th Senatorial District contest. His win placed a slew of lightly populated counties in northeast Missouri back into the Democratic column — where they’d been for generations before.

“I think I was kind of lucky,” said Shoemyer, noting that the fact that his GOP opponent, Bob Behnen, was a genealogist and not a farmer likely helped him win.

Shoemyer’s 2006 victory happened 16 years ago. But it feels like a lifetime ago.

After his 2010 loss for re-election, the counties that make up in 18th District aggressively trended toward the Republican Party. In some respects, 2006 was a pause of sorts to a realignment that was several decades in the making — and accelerated during the presidencies of Barack Obama and Donald Trump.

“I could tell on the doors from 2006 to 2010 that it was a lot different,” said Shoemyer during an interview at his Monroe County farm. “You knock on somebody’s door and they ask you if you’re a Democrat. That usually didn’t happen earlier on. They’d ask you what you believed in.”

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Brian Munoz
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St. Louis Public Radio
Wes Shoemyer, a former democratic state senator, boards his semi truck filled with corn on Monday before transporting it to a local ethanol plant in rural northeast Missouri.

The collapse of the Missouri Democrats in places like northeast Missouri is more than a story about a political shift. It’s about an existential crisis for a party that used to control Missouri politics.

Without competing in rural counties like the 18th District, the party will almost certainly lose statewide elections for the foreseeable future. And nobody has a solution on how to reverse a trend that’s largely influenced by how voters here are unable to separate their feelings about local candidates from their distaste toward the national Democratic Party.

“There’s a crosscurrent in north Missouri. And the crosscurrent is that the voters have not predominantly changed,” said Jeff Roe, a Brookfield, Missouri, native who founded Axiom Strategies — one of the largest GOP political consulting firms in America. “But there’s a crosscurrent of national politics from Tip O’Neill’s ‘all politics is local’ to the modern day ‘all politics are national.’”

A Democratic tradition

Since 2006, redistricting altered which counties are actually in the 18th District. But it’s almost always included counties in northeast Missouri — a Democratic stronghold for generations.

“When I was growing up, it was very firmly Democratic. Very firmly,” Shoemyer said. “And it kind of considered itself part of the South.”

The southern United States, of course, was a stronghold of the Democratic Party for decades — primarily due to hard feelings over the Union’s victory in the Civil War. Slavery was prevalent in a number of northeastern Missouri counties, and several major Civil War battles took place in that region.

Northeast Missouri was home to Democratic political giants like Champ Clark, Clarence Cannon, Lloyd Stark, Bill Hungate and Harold Volkmer. Those elected officials helped further a Democratic grip on the area — something that continued, according to John Briscoe, thanks to national policies championed by Democrats like President Franklin D. Roosevelt, including the New Deal.

“Those programs were helpful to a lot of people who were less well off — and helpful to farmers," said Briscoe, an attorney from New London whose family has participated in northeast Missouri Democratic politics for generations. “And because a lot of farmers had been in a bad financial way before the New Deal and they survived it, a lot of them gave Roosevelt credit for the reason they survived the Depression.

“I’ve had clients who’ve said ‘Oh my old granddaddy said you ought to be a Democrat because of Roosevelt,’” he added.

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St. Louis Public Radio
Shuttered buildings line downtown Shelbyville on Monday in rural northeast Missouri.

Northeast Missouri did vote for Republican presidential candidates like Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan throughout the 20th Century. But the area continued to send Democrats to Jefferson City — and, in the case of Volkmer, Washington, D.C.

Louis Riggs is a Hannibal native who used to work for Volkmer. He said Volkmer and other northeast Missouri Democrats were able to remain a political force because their politics matched the conservative sensibilities of the area.

Northeast Missouri Democrats, he said, often departed from the national party in opposing abortion rights and gun control. They also were strong supporters of union rights and bitter opponents of free trade deals like the North American Free Trade Agreement.

“I think part of the perception about why things went from basically 100% Democrat to not is bread-and-butter issues — like NAFTA,” Riggs said. “Harold was adamantly opposed to NAFTA and he predicted correctly that it would hollow out the manufacturing base of the Midwest. He was right. He broke with his party over that. He broke with his party on all sorts of other things — gun control being number one. But for us, that was normal.”

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St. Louis Public Radio
Republican State Senator Cindy O'Laughlin on Monday at her trucking company’s headquarters in Shelbina.

Measuring the earthquake

In many respects, northeast Missouri Democrats were on borrowed time.

The first big domino to fall was Volkmer, who lost re-election in 1996 to Republican Kenny Hulshof. Democrats never reclaimed the congressional district that takes in the 18th Senatorial District — and most of northeast Missouri was absorbed into the safely Republican 6th Congressional District in 2011.

The 18th Senatorial District remained in the Democratic column through the 1990s, until 2001. That’s the year when Joe Maxwell vacated that seat to become lieutenant governor — and Republican John Cauthorn won to give the GOP control of the Missouri Senate.

Shoemyer’s 2006 victory in 18th District essentially paused GOP momentum. By 2012, other Democrats who represented northeastern Missouri were ousted from office. That included Tom Shivley, who was first elected to a seat that included his home base of Shelby County in 2006.

Shivley blamed his loss on a well-funded GOP opponent and House redistricting that gave him a harder district. He said Democrats in Missouri lost a lot when they lost rural ground in the Missouri General Assembly.

“I told them, ‘If you want me to be down here, I can't vote on every issue that you all think I need to be voting yes on,’” Shivley said. “But I'm gonna vote yes on an awful lot of them.”

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St. Louis Public Radio
Former Democratic State Rep. and Shelby County Commissioner Tom Shively on Monday at the Shelbyville County Courthouse in rural northeast Missouri.

By 2018, Republican Cindy O’Laughlin won every county in the 18th District by landslide margins. And today, Republicans hold every single state legislative seat in northeast Missouri — and are expected to keep that distinction through the 2022 election.

“It’s going to be very difficult for a Democrat in a rural area,” said O’Laughlin, R-Shelbina. “Very difficult, if not impossible.”

There’s a number of smaller scale reasons for this change. Missouri Republicans became better funded — and had people like Kit Bond and Roy Blunt facilitating strong political organizations. And voters Briscoe described who were loyal because of the New Deal were literally dying out.

O’Laughlin and Shoemyer both agree that two policy issues played a role in driving conservative Democrats into the GOP column: Gun control and abortion rights. When Republicans became more associated with opposing restrictions on firearms and supporting restrictions on abortion, it made some conservative Democrats more willing to vote for the GOP.

“I mean, those are two bedrock issues, really, for both parties,” O’Laughlin said. “And over the last 20 years, the Democrat Party has gone further and further toward the left. And I think the Republican Party has kind of gone further toward the right. And we have ended up with a solid Republican district.”

Added Shoemyer: “Republicans got very good, and especially since Trump, at branding.”

“They branded Democrats,” Shoemyer said. “When you're defending yourself, though, I say you're losing.”

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Brian Munoz
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St. Louis Public Radio
Wes Shoemyer, a former Democratic state senator, dumps his corn into a grain container on Monday at a local ethanol plant in rural northeast Missouri.

All politics is national

Shoemyer alluded to perhaps the biggest reason why the 18th District drifted solidly in the Republican camp: The nationalization of local and state politics.

Roe noted that a state House or Senate candidate today may knock on somebody’s door, and hear a voter ask about federal controversies like Hunter Biden’s laptop or the FBI’s raid on Trump’s Mar-a-Lago property. That type of thing, he said, didn’t used to happen when he started his career in Missouri politics in the 1990s.

Roe said the national Democratic Party’s trajectory put more conservative Democrats in a bind, because the national party “moved so far into a more liberal, coastal elite party represented by very liberal presidential and congressional leadership.”

He also said major national events — like the COVID-19 pandemic, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the elections of Trump and Obama — made an impact on voting behavior.

“Major historical events have happened that have made politics pretty damn interesting,” Roe said. “You just have a lot more access to information about the good guys and the bad guys. … It’s forced people to make a decision on who they are politically. Ticket splitting has become much less common. People have just had to choose a jersey and kind of live with it.

“I think the voters made those decisions before the politicians did,” he added.

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Brian Munoz
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St. Louis Public Radio
Historic sports memorabilia is displayed in the Shelby County Courthouse’s lobby on Monday in Shelbyville.

Both Republicans and Democrats in northeast Missouri point to the rise of conservative media in helping usher in the GOP — and locking Democrats out of power.

The 1990s and 2000s saw the explosion in popularity of radio personalities like Rush Limbaugh and television stations like Fox News. And social media platforms like Facebook also became popular information dissemination entities — especially as local media outlets, including newspapers, declined financially.

“People were looking for different ways to get their news and information — and they found it,” said Riggs, who is now a state representative who represents several northeast Missouri counties. “Was Rush Limbaugh a part of that? Of course he was part of that. I knew Democrats who listened to Rush Limbaugh.”

Democrats in northeastern Missouri believe conservative media has had a corrosive impact on how people view politics.

Gay Phillips is a Palmyra resident and a Democratic voter. She pointed to a recent conversation with someone about a current event, which prompted the woman she was talking to say ‘the only thing I listen to is Tucker Carlson. Tucker knows what’s going on.’

"And I think my mouth dropped open," Phillips said.

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Brian Munoz
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St. Louis Public Radio
A cow grazes on former state senator Wes Shoemyer's farm on Monday in rural northeast Missouri.

And when Adrienne Abright sold advertising for a radio group from 2006 and 2013, she visited a lot of local businesses in Hannibal and surrounding areas. She said if there was a waiting room with a TV, it “was almost always tuned in to Fox News.”

“I think Fox News had, and continues to have, a profound influence on people's politics here,” said Abright, whose family has lived in the Hannibal area for decades. “When you combine that with the generally lower education level and lack of diversity in rural communities like ours, and factor in the rise of social media, where every individual has a megaphone and too many people struggle to discern reporting from editorializing... well, here we are.”

Abright said she started seeing the impact of the nationalization of local politics in her interpersonal relationships.

After she moved back to the Hannibal area in 2006, she said she “started to realize that a lot of people's politics had swerved hard to the right and that Democrats were increasingly persona non grata.”  

“It certainly hasn't gotten any better since then, either,” Abright said. “I was at a fish fry a couple of months before the 2020 presidential election and a good friend who'd had too much to drink pointed at me and started shouting, ‘You're a Democrat! You're gonna vote for a pedophile!’ How did we go from mostly blue to that?”

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Brian Munoz
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St. Louis Public Radio
Corn ready for harvest on Monday at former state senator Wes Shoemyer farm in rural northeast Missouri.

No easy answers

Missouri Democrats have been struggling to turn things around in places like the 18th Senatorial District for years. Nobody has a clear answer or easy solution.

Shoemyer said that one lingering problem for Democrats is the absence of a strong leader like former Gov. Mel Carnahan who was able to organize a strategy that led to successful statewide elections.

“Democrats have never, since I began running, kept continuity in their party like Republicans do,” said Shoemyer, who first won election to the Missouri House in 2000. “They kept continuity. And that continuity built relationships across the state. Those relationships evolved into results and things happening over and over where you didn’t have to rework everything. And now, you have to be a miracle worker to make all the contacts that you need to get signs up and all those things that need to happen.”

One of the key reasons why gaining ground in places like the 18th District matter so much is that Democrats can’t win statewide elections without holding down GOP margins in rural areas. Few expect people like Democratic U.S. Senate hopeful Trudy Busch Valentine to defeat her GOP opponent Eric Schmitt if she’s getting around 20% of the vote in places like northeast Missouri.

Trudy Busch Valentine, Democratic hopeful for Missouri’s open U.S. Senate seat, on Thursday, Sept. 1, 2022, at Milo's Bocce Garden in St. Louis’ The Hill neighborhood.
Brian Munoz
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St. Louis Public Radio
Trudy Busch Valentine, Democratic hopeful for Missouri’s open U.S. Senate seat, on Sept. 1 at Milo's Bocce Garden in St. Louis’ The Hill neighborhood.

And especially if the national environment is favorable to the GOP, O’Laughlin is favored against Democrat Ayanna Shivers on Nov. 8 in the 18th District race.

But Shivers, who is a city councilwoman who lives in Mexico, said that Democrats shouldn’t be looking for a savior — but should empower legislative candidates who are trying to build bridges.

“Because they have to get to know me,” Shivers said. “Part of being in rural America is understanding that relationships really do matter. I'll be honest, I've had people who I know support Trump, donate to my campaign. And, again, it's based on relationships.

“So I trust you because I grew up with you,” she added. “I don’t trust the person or just the radio ad.”

O’Laughlin doesn’t see Democrats regaining ground anytime soon — especially if they are unwilling to let more conservative voters be part of their coalition.

“If you’re willing to be someone who’s representing everyone, you need to be a little more willing to sit down and listen to people who don’t have your same view and you need to try to find common ground,” O’Laughlin said.

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Missouri has quickly swung from a bellwether state to deeply and reliably conservative one. "Making Sense of the 6th" is a series, produced in collaboration between St. Louis Public RadioKCUR and the Midwest Newsroom, that attempts to hear from voices on the ground in Missouri's 6th Congressional District, which stretches across the northern third of the state, to understand the changes in the political landscape.

Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.
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