Local voters’ mood shifting right

Boone County, a traditional Democratic stronghold, is steadily and slowly changing.
Sunday, February 1, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 7:20 a.m. CDT, Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Common knowledge says Democrats will win more often than they lose in Columbia and Boone County.

Maybe that’s true: Columbia’s government is led by an openly liberal and progressive mayor; the local delegation to the Missouri General Assembly is Democratic; the county government has been dominated by Democrats for years.

Federal elections are more uncertain, however, setting up Boone County as a sought-after swing area this fall as presidential candidates campaign in a state famous for picking winners.

Local Democratic leaders said they might have taken support here for granted during the past two decades, while the Republicans have diligently picked up more followers. In the 1970s, votes here clearly fell to the left. Now that more locals are voting Republican, party support has balanced out, making Boone County harder than it once was to typecast, Boone County Clerk Wendy Noren said.

“On the local level, all things being equal, (Boone County) will probably go Democrat,” Noren said. “On the federal level, they’ll probably go with the apparent winner.”

The shift has been gradual, but now it’s well-pronounced, Noren said. In the 2000 presidential race, Al Gore beat George Bush by less than one percentage point here. Jean Carnahan in 2002 edged out Jim Talent for a U.S. Senate seat by a similar margin. Boone County Republican Central Committee Chairman Brad Barondeau said many more people are involved in party activities now, and Democratic leaders say they probably backed off too much.

“The Democrats have been kind of complacent,” said Charles Christy, chairman of the Boone County Democratic Central Committee. “The Republicans have just been working harder.”

There is no single explanation for the political balancing act here, Noren said, but it is not solely a local phenomenon. Democrats have lost support here as defined party politics have become weaker and Little Dixie Democratic traditions have faded, as they have all over the South since the 1980s, Noren said.

Or maybe it’s more simple, Barondeau said: Maybe Columbia’s traditionally Democratic strength is being challenged by Republicans in the county’s rural areas. Or maybe it’s because Republicans have offered stronger candidates. Or maybe it’s all those things and more.

Regardless, it does not seem that candidates for the Democratic nomination are campaigning heavily for Boone County support; candidates toe-touching in Missouri last week made their stops almost exclusively in St. Louis, which is regarded as the most Democratic area in the state. Howard Dean’s local campaign organizer, Bob Berlin, said Dean considered stumping in Columbia or Jefferson City, but he decided on St. Louis like the other visiting candidates.

“The thought is we kind of expected to win Boone County, so why put more resources there?” Berlin said.

The hit-and-run campaigning that has preceded Tuesday’s seven state primaries likely will be more drawn out later this year, as presidential candidates have more time and resources to spend in places like Boone County — especially when, if history is any indication, winning Missouri almost certainly means winning the presidency.

“In reality, we’re probably more liberal than the rest of the state,” Noren said. “But our votes don’t differ too much from what actually happens.”

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