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Once Purple, Now Red: Why Missouri Could Still Swing Blue

Elle Moxley
KCUR 89.3
Former Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon makes a jobs announcement at Magna Seating in February 2015. Nixon prided himself on holding the line on right-to-work legislation while growing the state's automotive manufacturing sector.

In one of his final public appearances as governor, Jay Nixon stopped at Magna Seating, a small automotive parts manufacturer in Excelsior Springs.

“It’s good to visit people that are working, you know?” Nixon said. “Especially after that first year and a half where everyone was losing their jobs and the economy was tanking.”

Again and again, Nixon returned to Magna Seating to tout the Missouri Manufacturing Jobs Act.

This plant was on the verge of shutting down, he’d say, but we incentivized the automakers and saved Missouri jobs.

Unsurprisingly, Republicans see it differently.

Deep red

Republicans were quick to claim a mandate after big wins in November and enact policies they hadn’t been able to push past a Democratic governor.

“We’ve been lagging in job growth for 15 years in Missouri,” says Todd Graves, newly-elected chairman of the Missouri Republican Party. “We lost a House seat at the last decennial census.”

Graves has Republican bona fides – a two-time elected Platte County prosecutor, he was appointed U.S. attorney by George W. Bush. His brother is Republican Congressman Sam Graves.

“But, before that, our great grandfather, a long-time county elected official, was a Democrat,” Graves says. “My dad tells a really funny story, which is when he was a boy, every year they got silver dollars for Christmas. My great-grandfather, when they put Eisenhower on the silver dollar, quit giving out silver dollars because he was that partisan.”

In a lot of ways, Graves’ is the story of rural Missouri. It’s no longer the Democratic stronghold it once was.

“I think a lot of folks in north Missouri voted for Bill Clinton,” Graves says. “National Democrats do things that are out of line with the way an average Midwestern Missourian thinks.”

Pockets of blue

For too long, Stephen Webber says Democrats have allowed Republicans to define them.

“Democrats are never successful with any group of people whose primary information about Democrats comes from the Republican Party,” Webber says.

When Webber, now chairman of the Missouri Democratic Party, was elected to the Missouri House in 2008, there were still rural Democrats all across the state.

Not anymore. Donald Trump won Missouri by nearly 19 points.

“That doesn’t happen unless everything goes wrong. There’s a debate about which voters we need to focus on, and we need to focus on all of them,” Webber says.

Still, Webber says there are bright spots – like the shout-out Barack Obama gave the state's former Secretary of State Jason Kander, who lost his bid to unseat U.S. Senator Roy Blunt.

“My guy in Missouri, Kander, who lost but seems extraordinarily talented, seems like a sharp guy,” Obama said on “Pod Save America.”

So even though his party’s out of power, Webber’s optimistic.

“Every few years you can write a story about why one party or the other is done for,” Webber says. “Missouri is truly a swing state.”

He points to Claire McCaskill, whose U.S. Senate seat is up for re-election in 2018.

“She’s always written off as an underdog,” Webber says. “People always underestimate her. But she has a way to connect to Missourians that’s unique.”

Meanwhile, Missouri Republicans continue to paint Democrats as out of touch.

“The people have spoken,” Gov. Eric Greitens said at his inauguration.

Now it’s only a matter of time before so-called “right-to-work” legislation lands on Greitens’ desk.

He says he’ll sign it – and so ends years of frustration for Republicans whose efforts were always stymied by his Democratic predecessor.

Still purple?

But University of Missouri political scientist Peverill Squire thinks there are limits to what Republicans can accomplish.

“They probably can’t outlaw abortion,” Squire says. “They probably can’t do more to make guns available.”

Squire points out Republicans supermajorities in both chambers were well on their way to enacting their agenda even before they won the governor’s mansion.

“The problem for the Republicans is going to be where are they going to go from there? They will have achieved most of the things they’ve talked about for the last decade,” Squire says.

Back at his Kansas City office, Todd Graves acknowledges there’s hard work ahead. He peers out over downtown and says the party needs to make inroads with urban voters, even if it can win without them.

“We’re always talking about party in terms of winning elections,” Graves says. “We’re going to need to win governing here for the next year or two.”

Republicans control the Missouri governor’s mansion and the White House. That means if a policy initiative fails, they have only themselves to blame.

Elle Moxley covers Missouri schools and politics for KCUR. You can reach her on Twitter @ellemoxley.

Elle Moxley covered education for KCUR.
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