Democrats lose voters in rural areas

Politicians say rural voters side with Republicans on divisive issues.
Thursday, October 7, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 6:27 a.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

JEFFERSON CITY — Members of both major political parties agree Democrats have lost ground in rural Missouri over the past few years due to wedge issues such as guns, abortion and gay marriage, and Republicans are poised to strengthen their majority grip in the state Senate in the Nov. 2 election after regaining control two years ago.

The backlash against Democrats surrounding wedge issues was a contributing factor in Republicans’ ability to win control of the Senate two years ago. It was the first time Republicans had control of the Senate since 1948.

“Republicans definitely took (Democrats) to the cleaners as far as these issues are concerned,” MU political science professor Rick Hardy said.

Most Democrats, however, continue to oppose the legalization of concealed weapons, efforts to restrict abortion rights and the ban on gay marriage that voters passed by an overwhelming majority in August.

Hardy, who ran for U.S. Congress in 1992 as a Republican, noted what he called a trend in Democratic voting. Beginning in 1990, rural Missouri Democrats began split-ticket voting on the national and sometimes state level.

“The bottom line is that issues do matter to people, and Missourians don’t just blindly vote straight ticket anymore,” Hardy said. “In past years, people would vote straight ticket, but more and more we are seeing people voting split-ticket politics.”

One of the Senate’s rural moderates, Steve Stoll, D-Jefferson County, agrees Democrats have lost some seats in rural Missouri as a result of these controversial issues.

“The thing that probably causes Democrats to lose over these issues is because they feel like that in order to be a good Democrat they have to be pro-choice and anti-gun,” Stoll said. “I think that is where they go wrong because I think you can still be a good Democrat and be pro-life and protect people’s Second Amendment rights.”

Stoll was one of three Democrats to override Gov. Bob Holden’s veto of the concealed weapons bill in 2003.

In January, Sens. Harold Caskey, D-Butler, and Jim Mathewson, D-Sedalia, both of whom supported the override, will be forced out of office because of term limits. Some recent election results suggest Republicans have a good chance to fill their seats. In the 2000 gubernatorial election, for example, Republican Sen. Jim Talent defeated Holden in both Mathewson’s and Caskey’s districts before their boundaries were redrawn. And in 1999, voters in both districts bucked the party platform by overwhelming margins in approving the legalization of concealed weapons.

Stoll thinks Democrats need to begin looking for candidates who best reflect the values of their district and to accept the fact that party members might differ on wedge issues.

Asked if Democrats in rural areas feel out of step with the national Democratic Party, Senate Minority Floor Leader Maida Coleman, D-St. Louis, said “that is the $64,000 question.”

“I spend a considerable amount of time in a state of dichotomy over this issue,” Coleman said.

She said Democrats’ complacency also allowed Republicans to gain control of the legislature.

“Democrats got elected and went right to work with the business of legislating, and we forgot to watch the back door,” Coleman said. “And that was Republicans nipping at our heels and making issues out of guns and abortions.”

Coleman said such issues hit on areas that are most sacred to people: their bodies, their safety and their morals. It’s no wonder, she said, that Democratic voters are becoming disillusioned.

“I think at times we are so deep in the forest that we can’t see the trees, and it is time for Democrats to regain the support of their constituents by becoming more involved in the concerns of their districts,” Coleman said.

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