JEFFERSON CITY — Election Day 2004 was a dream come true for Peter Kinder.
Not only did the Republican state senator from Cape Girardeau narrowly win the race for lieutenant governor, he also saw his party gain control of the governor’s office for the first time in more than a decade, win the state treasurer’s race and increase its majorities in both chambers of the General Assembly.
Next year will mark the first time in more than 80 years that Republicans will control the legislature and the state’s top office. It may be the most powerful position the party has ever held in Missouri.
“This is the realigning election I have been working for since I was a teenager in the ’70s,” Kinder said.
In 1989, Democrats held 22 seats in the Missouri Senate, including many rural districts. When the upper chamber opens its doors this January, the Democratic numbers will have shrunk to half that: 11 seats drawn only from the Democratic enclaves of St. Louis, Kansas City and Columbia.
The only exception to the rightward trend of recent years had been the Democrats’ ability to hold onto the Governor’s Mansion. The late Gov. Mel Carnahan held the state’s top job through much of the 1990s, drawing most of his votes from urban areas that remain Democratic strongholds. His successor, Gov. Bob Holden, was able to eke out a victory over Republican Jim Talent in the wake of Carnahan’s death in an airplane crash just weeks before the 2000 general election.
The Democrats’ lease on the mansion came to an end last week with voters’ selection of Republican Matt Blunt as Missouri’s next governor.
“We have felt that Missouri is a Republican state in the making for more than 20 years, and this finally confirms it,” Kinder said. “There was no last-minute plane crash derailing the natural trend this year and no election of an accidental governor.”
On the national scene, political analysts have been quick to point to the turnout of conservative Christians and the “moral-values vote” as the driving force behind the Republican windfall in Washington.
Rick Hardy, an MU professor of political science who serves as an elector for President Bush, thinks the shift in Missouri has been more complicated than that, pointing to redistricting that favored Republicans and the GOP’s superior organization.
However, Hardy said the Democrats’ greatest failing has been their inability to connect with rural voters, who are often conservative on social issues such as gun control, gay marriage and abortion.
“They come under the radar screen. You can’t see them,” Hardy said. “They are out there. People are talking about them in the coffee shops every morning. They won’t say it because they are afraid of being labeled, but when they go into the privacy of their polling booth that’s where it all comes out.”
“The conservative out-state Democrats just no longer fit with the liberal Democrats at the top of the ticket, both in state government and more often in the national level,” Hardy said.
Another national trend has been a bevy of pledges from representatives on both sides of the aisle for more congenial relations between the two parties. After the high-profile Democratic losses of presidential candidate John Kerry and South Dakota Sen. Tom Daschle, who both were very vocal in their criticisms of the opposition, politicians might be eager to show voters they can work together to solve problems.
Last Friday, Missouri House Democrats replaced their floor leader with 23rd District state Rep. Jeff Harris of Columbia.
Harris and the new Senate Democratic leader — Sen. Maida Coleman of St. Louis — have hinted that Democrats might take a less confrontational tack this year. That would be a shift from past leadership, which was aggressive in challenging the Republican majority on both floors of the General Assembly.
Governor-elect Blunt and other Republicans have also pledged more bipartisan cooperation. But the outgoing House Democratic floor leader, Rick Johnson, warns that post-election pledges of bipartisanship might be nothing more than empty promises.
“When the majority says they’re going to be bipartisan, bipartisan means the minority going along with whatever they want,” Johnson said. “That’s not bipartisanship.”
Regardless of the approach Democrats bring to their minority status, the party’s power in Jefferson City has been so diluted that there might be little chance of standing in Republicans’ way.
“The onus is on us now to govern,” Kinder said. “We have no-excuses majorities.”