KANSAS CITY — As the nation tips toward Democrats, Missouri apparently still hangs in the balance.
Republican John McCain held a small lead Wednesday over Democratic President-elect Barack Obama in Missouri, bucking a national trend in which Obama turned various red states blue while Democrats added to their majorities in Congress.
Yet Missourians gave a lopsided victory to Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jay Nixon and elected Democrats to the state's other two open executive offices, attorney general and treasurer.
In legislative races, Republicans retained control of both the state Capitol and its delegation to Washington.
So is Missouri a Democratic state, or a Republican state?
"I think it's a pretty closely balanced state still,'' Dave Robertson, a political scientist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, said.
Missouri's split-ticket tendencies in Tuesday's elections were most prominently revealed in the presidential and gubernatorial elections.
McCain led Obama by 5,868 votes — a difference of 0.2 percentage points — out of more than 2.9 million cast, with all precincts reporting results. But the race was too close to call, because more than 7,000 provisional ballots remained outstanding.
Provisional ballots are cast when voters' names can't be found on the books used by poll workers. The ballots are counted only if it is later determined the voters were eligible. That process could take some time. Local election officials have until Nov. 18 to certify their results to the state.
Historically, far fewer than half of the provisional ballots cast in Missouri actually end up counting. Secretary of state spokeswoman Laura Egerdal said Wednesday that there's no reason to believe this year will be any different.
As things stand, Obama continued the traditional Democratic dominance in St. Louis and Kansas City while McCain easily carried the vast majority of Missouri's traditionally Republican rural counties.
Among Obama's closest Missouri advisers was Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill, who in her victory two years ago carried 22 other counties outside of St. Louis city and county and Kansas City's Jackson County. Obama made an effort to focus on Republican areas with phone calls, canvassers and personal campaign appearances. But Obama failed to duplicate McCaskill's results, carrying just six of those counties.
That's in sharp contrast to the gubernatorial race, where Democrat Nixon made huge strides in Republican areas. He carried 70 of the state's 116 voting jurisdictions, including dozens of rural counties and the typical Republican strongholds of Greene and St. Charles counties.
Political scientist George Connor of Missouri State University cited at least two reasons for the difference.
First, Nixon's 16 years as attorney general — and his creation of the no-call telemarketing list — gave him a greater statewide name recognition than his opponent, Republican U.S. Rep. Kenny Hulshof, who was making his first statewide bid.
Second, "even though Jay Nixon is a Democrat, they don't perceive him to be as far left as Obama, and the fact is he's not as far left as Obama,'' Connor said.
In the final week before the election, Republicans emphasized social issues in the conservative parts of outstate Missouri. Pro-gun and anti-abortion interest groups also ran ads urging opposition to Obama and support for McCain.
"We have a larger evangelical population than a bellwether state like Ohio,'' which voted for Obama despite backing Republican President Bush in previous elections, Robertson said. "It may be that our bellwether status now, because of that increased representation of evangelicals, makes us slightly more like (Republican-leaning) Oklahoma than a swing state.''
Using Bush's 2004 victory in Missouri as a base, Robertson had predicted before Tuesday's election that Obama would need to do three things to pull even with McCain in Missouri:
- Convert the energy of the youth and of African-Americans into a roughly 5 percent increase over the turnout that Democrat John Kerry received in 2004.
- Pick up about 5 percent of the moderate Republicans and independents who voted for Bush.
- Have an additional 5 percent of the Republicans who voted for Bush stay home in 2008.
The first two seemed to pan out, Robertson said, but the latter apparently did not.
The result was that, even though McCain won by slightly smaller margins than Bush in many of Missouri's rural counties, outstate Missouri still provided McCain a cushion to counteract Obama's urban votes.