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Commentary: Democrat Decline in Missouri (Part 2)

A once-proud and dominant Missouri Democratic Party is in disarray. There are multiple reasons for this.

State Democrats were hit by tragic bad luck – twice. In 1976 a charismatic congressman from north Missouri, Jerry Litton, won the Democratic primary for U.S. Senator but was killed, with his family, in a plane crash on the way to his victory party in Kansas City. 1976 was favorable year for Democrats – Jimmy Carter was elected president – and Litton would probably have beaten the Republican, John Danforth (and at least stalled if not ended Danforth’s career) and would have been on a very short list of presidential possibilities in the 1980s.

In 2000 a very popular Democratic governor, Mel Carnahan, was ahead of incumbent U.S. Senator John Ashcroft in the polls. He died in a plane crash in October. He stayed on the ballot and actually beat Ashcroft; his widow was appointed to fill the seat after the election. Carnahan, like Litton, would also have been on a very short list of presidential possibilities in the 2000s.

Carnahan’s death was deeply demoralizing for Democrats. They lost control of the Missouri legislature shortly thereafter. They neglected their farm system – they failed to identify and nurture up-and-comers like Republicans had identified and nurtured Bond and Danforth a generation earlier.

In February there was an article in the Missourian headlined: “Democrats Fear Extinction in Rural U.S.” “The brand is toxic,” it said. “The hatred for Democrats [in my rural area] is just unbelievable,” one Pennsylvania voter was quoted.

What’s happening nationally certainly applies to Missouri. Former North Dakota U.S. Senator Heidi Heitkamp says: “We’re letting Republicans use the language of the far left to define the Democratic Party.”

That’s one reason. The relentlessness of GOP messaging, on ripe display at the Thomas-Brown Supreme Court confirmation hearing, and its amplification by friendly social media are impressive.

My friend in California reminds me of three additional factors:

  • The decline in Missouri of manufacturing, whose unions routinely endorsed, gave lots of money to, and got out the vote for Democratic candidates.
  • The culture wars, especially abortion and guns, cut into Democrats’ solid hold on Catholics.
  • The decline of local journalism, which checked the excesses of local elected officials.  Now, as he says, “rural voters are left with Fox News and social media.”  

I also believe Democrats are still suffering from PTSD from the Clinton defeat in 2016, worsened by the Trump presidency and worsened more by the January 6 insurrection. Republicans have also exploited Democratic tendencies to play by the rules. Republicans have brought a Hellfire missile to a knife fight. Democrats have not found a strategy that will reverse their dismal decline in rural Missouri. Missouri is not Georgia, and there is no Stacy Abrams to engage activists and register voters.
We are light years from the day in 1948 when Harry Truman said in his reelection campaign: “If voters don’t do their duty by the Democratic Party, they are the most ungrateful people in the world.”

Dr. Terry Smith is a Political Science professor at Columbia College and a regular commentator on KBIA's Talking Politics.