SEDALIA — Kiwi Popyk never paid much attention to politics. But the public-school employee says that all changed when she attended a rally at Sedalia’s old train depot, starring the Democratic national ticket.
With their recent campaign stops in rural areas that went solidly for President Bush as he carried Missouri in 2000, Popyk said, “John Kerry and John Edwards showed they cared about country folks in Missouri.”
Both campaigns do care, for strategic reasons. Presidential exit polls have shown the two major political parties can each depend on receiving about one-third of the vote statewide. Increasingly, rural voters, especially independent ticket-splitters and conservative to moderate Democrats, are deciding Missouri elections.
With both major parties energizing their core voters, “the battle is for those uncertains and independents, and I think that is a small field of prospects out there, heavily fought,” Republican Sen. Jim Talent said.
Democrats have strong organizations in the cities of St. Louis and Kansas City, and the parties scramble for any edge in St. Louis County, the most populous county in the state. Democrat Al Gore carried St. Louis County in 2000 by about 25,000 votes out of half a million ballots cast.
Bush built his winning 2000 margin in outstate Missouri, and it’s to rural areas that both parties are looking this fall.
“This is the heartland, and it’s this year’s battleground,” Talent said.
Already this year, outstate clout denied Missouri Gov. Bob Holden renomination and contributed to an almost 71 percent majority backing a state constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.
David Robertson, a political scientist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, said Holden’s winning challenger, State Auditor Claire McCaskill, rolled up her margin in rural counties. That may have reflected rural anger at Holden, but it translated into support for his challenger.
“There is a synergy between these rural votes and McCaskill’s win, and it’s worth Democrats noting how the rural counties voted heavily,” Robertson said.
For example, the “yes” votes on the gay-marriage ban unofficially totaled 1,054,763 — almost 440,000 more votes than were cast for both Republican candidates for U.S. Senate (three-term incumbent Kit Bond easily beat an unknown challenger).
That means hundreds of thousands of votes against gay marriage came from voters who also participated in the Democratic primary.
These results reinforced some lessons about Missouri, which has gone with every White House winner except one in the last century. Most voters are moderate to conservative, electing both Democrats and Republicans to statewide offices — often on the same ballot. The state does not require party registration, so crossover voting happens.
Jerry Jacobs, a family farmer from Sullivan County in northern Missouri, is determined to vote Democratic after joining his county’s majority — a 750-vote spread — backing Bush in 2000.
“We are hurting in rural areas, and we need some hope and Bush isn’t giving it to us,” Jacobs said.
It’s outstate voters like Jacobs that Democrats hope to reach through campaign stops by party celebrities in locales without TV stations, places the national party blew off — and lost badly — in past presidential years.
On Thursday, for example, Iowa Democratic Gov. Tom Vilsack led a caravan of Kerry-Edwards backers to stops in Sedalia, Macon and Kirksville. In their tour by train, Kerry and Edwards paused in GOP strongholds, including Washington, Mo., and Jefferson City.
Matt Blunt, the Republican secretary of state who is running for governor, said the Democratic appeals in rural Missouri can’t stand up to an examination of the records.
“There are just profound differences, and it isn’t just on the surface,” Blunt said.
Successful Republican candidates have also made it comfortable for voters to split tickets in areas that were historically Democratic. A prime example is northeast Missouri’s 9th Congressional District, part of an area known as Little Dixie that had a Democratic tradition dating to the Civil War.
But in 1996, the district turned out veteran Democratic Rep. Harold Volkmer and replaced him with Republican Kenny Hulshof. This year, Hulshof’s seat is considered so safe by the GOP that the congressman is spending a lot of his time serving as Bush’s Missouri spokesman.
Gene Howes of Monroe City recently drove two hours to attend a rally for Vice President Dick Cheney in Columbia, the southern outpost of Little Dixie, and said the shift to the GOP has been “gradual but certain.”
“They don’t like too much government regulation. They are pro-life, pro-gun. And I see more people signing up to help with Republican campaigns and such. Times have changed out in the country,” Howes said.