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Voters in northwest Missouri say they became Republicans because 'Democrats left us'

An elderly man stands with his arm wrapped around a pole that supports the roof of an old-fashioned roadside restaurant at night. There are two other standing near a window waiting for their order.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Stanberry resident Harold Bracken stands outside J's Taste E Freeze on a Friday night in October. He says the "Democratic party left us." Bracken says he voted for Jimmy Carter in 1976, but that was the last Democratic president he voted for.

Voters in Missouri's rural counties north of Kansas City say their politics haven't much changed over the years. Instead, it's the national political parties that changed, and in northwest Missouri, the result is firm Republican control.

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 RadioKCUR 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.

Voters in northeast Missouri told KCUR's Carlos Moreno that they believe there aren't any moderate Democrats on the ballot anymore, and that the party no longer represents their values.
Yunyi Dai
Voters in northeast Missouri told KCUR's Carlos Moreno that they believe there aren't any moderate Democrats on the ballot anymore, and that the party no longer represents their values.

The light frost forming on soybean and corn fields on a recent Saturday kept farmers in Nodaway County from an early start in the fields during harvest season, but it’s not slowing down Byron Clark.

Clark, 38, is on his way back from Omaha with a truck with some auto parts for the truck repair business he owns. When Clark is not fixing the machinery that lets farmers in northwest Missouri haul hogs, move grain and harvest crops, he tends to business as mayor of Clearmont, a city of 160 people.

Clark relies on support from fellow conservatives, much like most of the elected officials in northwest Missouri. This part of the state once featured a competitive Democratic Party, but in the last 20 years has tilted strongly in favor of Republicans.

Clark and others say the prevailing conservative sentiment in their communities did not change. Instead, the priorities and platform of national Democrats put the party out of step in a part of Missouri where voters favor border security and gun rights.

“The biggest key component anymore that seems to drive everybody is everybody wants to see our community stay together, see our school stay, see our kids be safe,” Clark said. “And you don't hear the left talk about that as much as what the right does.”

“The Democrats at the national level, you see the focus on rights of everybody else,” he added.

A man stands amidst a large metal shop where there are boxes and parts of equipment lying around.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Clearmont, Missouri, Mayor Byron Clark starts his day early one cold Saturday morning in October. His construction and repair business in Burlington Junction supports local agricultural, ranching and other industries. A Republican, Clark says the Democratic party has moved too far left for rural voters.

That view is supported by Harold Bracken, a 66-year-old maintenance technician who lives in Stanberry, a city of about 1,100 in neighboring Gentry County. Bracken once voted for Democrats, but hasn’t since he supported Jimmy Carter’s successful run for president in 1976.

“The Democratic party left us,” he said.

Inflation was high in the late 1970s.

“And then when Reagan got in there, it all disappeared,” Bracken said.

The return of inflation will likely doom the already dim prospects of Democrats in northwest Missouri and the 6th Congressional District, a sweeping area that stretches across the northern third of the state. Republican Rep. Sam Graves has held a firm grip on this district for 21 years, having never faced a serious challenge from a Democrat since his first run for the 6th District in 2000.

In Bracken’s view, today’s Democrats aren’t Democrats like Pat Danner who preceded Graves in Congress.

“We want something center to the right,” Bracken said. “We don’t want people coming around saying, ‘Well you can’t do this, you can’t do this, we’re gonna teach your kid what we’re gonna teach ‘em and you don’t have any say so about it.’”

A tractor pulls  a blue grain cart alongside a combine harvester in a soybean field. On the horizon behind them are wind turbines.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
A combine moves through a soybean field preparing to pour its harvest into a grain cart outside Tarkio, Missouri -- Congressman Sam Graves' hometown -- where wind turbines dot the rural landscape and where Republican candidates find smooth sailing.

‘Out of touch’

The shifting dynamic in the 6th Congressional District gives Graves a safe seat in Congress.

Cook Political Report doesn’t list the district among any of its competitive House races in its current election ratings, and hasn’t since 2008. That year, former Kansas City Mayor Kay Barnes was considered a formidable Democratic challenger to Graves in an election cycle in which Barack Obama reached the White House and Democrats won large majorities in the House and Senate.

Barnes only fetched 37% of the vote, losing to Graves in a landslide. Even so, Barnes got the highest share of votes of any Democratic candidate in the 6th District since 2002.

Some voters in the district, even those who lean to the right, say the safe nature of Graves’ seat means he doesn’t often campaign or visit some parts of the district.

Chris Earnshaw, who lives just south of Buckner, lamented a dearth of centrist politicians.

“I would like somebody to represent me who has that view,” he says. “And I'm having a hard time finding one on either side.”

A man leans on a wooden counter inside a bar while another man sets out a liquor bottle behind him. Two people sit at the bar waiting for a drink.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Chris Earnshaw, at Bone Hill Distillery in Buckner, says they don't see many politicians campaign in the lower northwest corner of Missouri's Congressional 6th District.

Earnshaw gave an interview on a Friday night in Buckner, a town of about 3,000 in eastern Jackson County, as he and his business partner Jerry Brady set up inside Bone Hill Distillery. Buckner sits in the far southwest corner of the 6th District, close to Kansas City and its suburbs.

Earnshaw insisted he is politically neutral. He says he’s an “American first” before any political affiliation.

Earnshaw said Graves is out of step with voters like him and has never seen the congressman from Tarkio campaign in his southern part of the 6th District.

“I just feel like it puts him out of touch with the people within his own district by him not putting feet on the ground and coming and seeing people,” Earnshaw said. “Not just business owners, not just local politicians – people.”

Gladstone resident Kyle Yarber ran as a Democrat against Graves in 2012.

Yarber said his experience campaigning against Graves in 2012 took him deep into the district’s expanse where he learned how contemporary campaigning works or doesn’t work.

“Eventually I got into 140 towns in the 6th District,” he says. “You get to meet people in their driveway; meet them where they were. You were certainly seeing that the person there who was supposed to be helping them, you couldn’t see why he had so much support.”

Yarber says most residents would consistently say they hadn’t seen Graves campaigning or using much media advertising.

Still, Yarber suffered a steep defeat to Graves in 2012, picking up only 32% of the vote.

‘Gone way left’

Former Republican political operative James Thomas said people in the district have always been conservative by nature and their voting concerns are fairly simple.

“If you're gonna look at issues that are important to them. They're overwhelmingly pro-gun, pro-life, anti-tax,” he says. “They don't like the government interfering in their lives.”

A combination map and bar chart showing the changes in the MO-06 district and the presidential election results from 1992 to 2020.

Thomas, now a Kansas City attorney, said the 6th District voted with Democrats until the early 1990s.

That’s when the shift happened.

Democrat Pat Danner held the seat for six years before Graves. Before her, Republican Tom Coleman held the seat for 17 years after stepping in when Democrat Jerry Litton died in a plane crash in 1976. Before that was Democrat William Raleigh Hull, Jr., who held the seat from 1955 until 1973.

Thomas said those Democrats and others, like Dick Gebhardt and Ike Skelton, were “old-school” Democrats.

They don’t exist anymore, he said.

“The Democrats have gone way left,” Thomas says. “They are not open to conservative-thinking people. And to that extent, they are not going to win in this 6th Congressional District.”

Northwest Missouri State University political science professor Jessica Gracey said the 6th District’s shift to solidly Republican voting is the result of “realignment theory.”

She said the parties weren’t nearly as ideologically distinct from each other in the 1990s and even early 2000s as they are today.

“So it's very easy for voters to sort of know which ideology each party is,” she said. “And the Republicans have gotten really good at messaging on the issues that resonate with a lot of rural voters.”

She shares Thomas’ view that gun rights and opposition to abortion figure heavily into conservative political affiliation. But she also said infrastructure, childcare and schools switching to four-days-a-week will also be part of the voters’ mindsets.

And she also said Democrats have focused more on cities and suburbs.

“I don’t want to say the Democrats have abandoned rural areas, but they kind of have, Gracey said. “I think Republicans have too, because as they've gotten so good at messaging, these have become very safe areas for Republicans. So they don’t need to campaign here.”

Yarber, the Democratic challenger to Graves in 2012, also said small towns in the 6th District that supported agricultural industry and were pro-union in the past have fully disappeared or shrunk to near irrelevance.

‘We don’t know why’

The declining population of the rural areas is reflected in the size of the schools and even the number of players they can field for different sports. Many towns have consolidated their athletics.

A man stands on the tailgate of a pickup truck overlooking a football field at dusk. He's got a heavy coat on and the lights on the stadium are turned on as the sun sets in the background.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
A spectator watches the East Atchison Wolves play the Stanberry Bulldogs on Oct. 14 in Stanberry. The agricultural community lies in the northwest part of Missouri's Congressional 6th district where farming and ranching dominate in the conservative stronghold.

In Stanberry, the East Atchison Wolves were on the field against the hometown Bulldogs. It’s an eight-man league in early October.

A small grandstand on one side of the field harbored fans bundled in thick jackets and wrapped in blankets. Others were scattered at picnic tables scarfing a hot dog and chips with a drink.

Still others sat in their cars or stood on the tailgates of their trucks to watch the game from a grassy field.

Nick Groomer and his wife were among the spectators headed to the bleachers. The 40-year-old teaches history in Stanberry.

“We’ve talked about that, how her parents have stayed Democrats, but they’re still conservative, but they’ve always been that way,” Groomer said.

Groomer and his wife generally stay fairly neutral and don’t delve deep into politics. They have, however, recently tossed around the whys and hows of the way locals have changed their voting preferences.

The Groomers’ concerns lie in support for schools and educating youth about how politics works or doesn’t.

He says he's concerned how his students sometimes get their political information from social media or parents parroting what they hear on social media.

“I had to tell some kids they can’t take away your guns,” he said. “There’s a process to do that."

But Groomer also knows the political winds have shifted around him and he's struggled to reconcile that.

“It’s definitely changed,” he says. “The conservative party is Republican now.”

“We don’t know why it changed.”

As KCUR’s general assignment reporter and visual journalist, I bring our audience inside the daily stories that matter most to the people of the Kansas City metro, showing how and why events affect residents. Through my photography, I seek to ensure our diverse community sees itself represented in our coverage. Email me at carlos@kcur.org.
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