Historically, Missouri was known as a bellwether swing state always in play between Democrats and Republicans. The state as a whole was purple, yet, below the surface it was not that straight forward. It only appeared purple because the mass of progressives in diverse blue urban areas who voted Democrat balanced out the rural conservative areas of the state that voted Republican like it was a religion. So instead of purple, Missouri was really a polka-dot pattern of a few big fading blue dots surrounded by a rising red sea.
The story of how Missouri became a reliably safe Republican red state for many local, state, and national office holders is the story of what really happened to the population, culture, economy and reputation of Missouri over recent decades. Like many big changes, this transition took a long time to ferment, then changed all at once as if it was a surprise.
In my experience from bearing witness in the heartland to this significant change, there is no single reason, but a confluence of numerous trends, small and large, that eventually converged to flip the state. Let’s look at some of the most important terms in the political equation for Missouri.
The two largest metropolitan areas of the state, which are predominantly Democrat, are no longer growing but are actually bleeding population. The City of St. Louis has fallen to a population of now under 300,000 when at one time it was approaching a million as the eighth largest city in the country. The total population of the surrounding counties in Missouri which comprise the St. Louis metropolitan statistical area have grown little when urban flight and suburban sprawl is subtracted. Urban trends in the quality of life, crime rate, job opportunities and public education have become so concerning that many poor and affluent families alike have fled the city for the safer county or left the state all together. Likewise, young professionals, and recent college grads are leaving for better opportunities elsewhere in more progressive states with diverse cities that do not have as much negative history as St. Louis does with racial segregation, income equality, and public welfare.
However, the rural areas of the state are growing and they are nearly all conservative. Inexpensive country living is made possible in the state where many counties have poor or non-existent zoning and building codes. In rural Missouri, voting Republican is largely about culture, heritage, and values, as if it was a religious obligation. Many rural folks vote their values based on family tradition, small unobtrusive government and low taxes even when it hurts them the most. This is even more so ironic given the poverty rates and dependency on government aid of rural Missourians can be equal to or greater than of urban areas. Some vote Republican not because they are conservatives but have a dismal perception of so-called big city liberal Democrats.
Yet, life in rural conservative areas that vote Republican is tough and fragile for many low-income families. Rural counties often have higher rates of unemployment, poverty, broken families, young unwed mothers, substance abuse, chronic illnesses, and mortality rates than in the state’s urban centers. Good union-wage jobs with upward mobility supporting vibrant farm or hill small towns disappeared long ago, leaving a whole generation feeling hopeless and abandoned. Understandably, they often seek someone to blame, which conservative politicos, populist demagogues and their beloved media propagandists eagerly feed up.
The state’s culture is becoming more southern-like and thus conservative in nature. The University of Missouri left the Big 12 conference in 2011 to join the SEC. By several metrics of public well-being, Missouri ranks alongside southern states like Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi in a race to the bottom of quality-of-life standings. Confederate flags can still be seen flying alongside rural highways and stuck onto the bumpers of pickup trucks. The state celebrates a Rush Limbaugh Day and his bust is prominently displayed in the state capitol. Racism very much exists in both urban and rural areas, but many who are racists will claim they are not and earnestly believe it. As in much of the south, the state is very much segregated by color, culture, income, health and wealth wherever you look inside of classrooms, sanctuaries, restaurants, offices, sports arenas, concerts, and recreational sites.
Net inflows and migration into the state, that might have increased Democrat-leaning voters, is dismal. There are fewer transfers of well-educated professionals into the state compared to previous decades. St. Louis was once a major Fortune 100 business center with a disproportionate share of headquarters like Monsanto, Anheuser-Busch, Ralston Purina, McDonnell Douglas, and Southwestern Bell that would become AT&T. Unfortunately, due to a largely insular business culture unfriendly to outsiders, these companies became easy prey for merger and acquisition activity by firms more innovative and open to newcomers with new ideas. For many industries, St. Louis has now become is a branch office town serving regional or national business executives who are located in Chicago, Dallas, or Minneapolis. As a result, St. Louis is more often compared to if not eclipsed by Cincinnati, Nashville, and Indianapolis, all who compete for Midwest business, relocations, college grads, investments, conferences, and prestige.
The reputation of the state for key measurements of quality of life has been falling for some time. The state government is notoriously cheap in investing in those things that improve the quality of life of its residents or make it attractive to grow a business, other than low taxes which has a hidden cost when attracting talent or investment into the state. We have exceedingly low expectations in most metrics that we still are challenged to live up to. The state has often led the nation in murder rates, unsafe roads and bridges, underpaid state workers. meth labs, puppy mills, CAFOs, highway billboards, coal energy sources, police stop forfeitures, underfunding of schools, uninsured rates, unvaccinated rates, and the list goes on and on. These are not attributes that attract or encourage progressives to call Missouri home.
The role of religion in both urban and rural areas also has had an effect on voters. The large Catholic base of St. Louis is led by a conservative sect that would not give communion to most recent or current Democrat presidents. The rural areas are dominated by evangelical churches who wrap themselves around the cross and flag as if both belonged only to them. Similar to much of the South, white evangelicals account for over 35% of the total vote in Missouri and where over 80% of these voted Republican for Trump.
The state is so divided and balkanized by east versus west, rural versus urban, black versus white, farm versus hill country, conservative versus liberal, and rich versus poor that politicians and lobbyists get away with whatever they want to do with little consequences. The state legislature, which has a Republican supermajority, routinely negates the will and referendum votes of the public without fear. Their base will vote for them no matter what they may do it seems. Voter discouragement and suppression is systemic with strong resistance to make voting easy with vote-by-mail or not requiring a reason to vote absentee. Gerrymandering is legendary. A few years ago, state Republicans took a safe Democrat-held state senate district in Kansas City and moved it along with its openly gay elected representative into the middle of conservative central Missouri where the state senator was predictably voted out of office.
The actions and reputations of many elected national representatives from Missouri are embarrassing, from disgraced adulterous former Governor Eric Greitens to insurrectionist fist-waving Senator Josh Hawley. Our ex-Governor, reported to have had an abusive affair with his hairdresser who he was accused of blackmailing, acts as if state politics is so broken and the electorate so polarized that he can run for US Senate as a true conservative. He is right at home with the gun-toting Mark McCloskey, another Republican candidate for senate, who along with his wife threatened peaceful Black Lives Matter protestors as they marched past their mansion. Our junior senator Josh Hawley, when he is not fist waving in support of an insurrection and objecting to election results, believes that we are making men too feminist and that our boys just need to man and gun up. State Attorney General Eric Schmitt, who should be protecting residents when not posturing to be our next US Senator, spends most of his time suing municipal governments, public health commissions, and school boards that have tried to keep us safe with mask mandates, business restrictions, and vaccine mandates.
The national Democrat Party has largely abandoned the state and the state Democratic party is in perpetual underfunded disarray. In 2016, Hillary Clinton never campaigned in the state and there was only one marginally staffed campaign office that could not even distribute yard signs. Trump won the state by 18% with more votes than he received in some southern states like South Carolina. The 2020 election was no better when a majority of Missourians could still not bring themselves to voting for a moderate Democrat and instead did so for someone accused of being a thrice married pathological lying misogynist narcissist bankrupt tax cheating authoritarian admiring Putin pal demagogue cult leader con artist and faux conservative. Yes, they thought this type of a president in the White House was still a better pick than any Democrat. Many counties voted for Trump with 80% of the vote.
The state Democrat party is so splintered into tribes with poor farm team development of new candidates who can win the hearts of all Democrats, much less reach across to moderate Republicans. Many counties across the state have only Republican elected officials who run without opposition. Recently, the Democrat leadership of cities and counties like St. Louis seems to be always in turmoil, fighting amongst themselves, demonstrating to others they can’t lead or govern when in power.
Our once-widely respected elder Democrat statesmen/women like Gephardt, Nixon, Carnahan and McCaskill who garnered substantial rural conservative votes, are long gone. Republican leaders of the state, like Danforth, Bond, and Ashcroft, were moderates who also attracted swing voters in the center. Now the perception and reputation of Democrats across most of Missouri is incorrectly that of radicals, despite conservatives now being a party of extremists inciting violence to overthrow election results. It’s a narrative constructed and perpetuated by the Republicans since Democrats appear largely inept at marketing, messaging, and branding their own identity.
Statewide Democrats, like those nationally, struggle with articulating a compelling vision or uniting around a competitive counter narrative that describes what they are about and have accomplished. All this despite many red voters supporting the policies that the Democrats of Missouri champion like Medicaid expansion, labor rights, legalization of medicinal marijuana, increasing minimum wage, political reforms, and reasonable firearm restrictions. But once again, policy and performance does not matter as much as culture, propaganda and scare theatrics.
On the other hand, Republicans are generally a monolithic voting block whether in urban or rural areas. They run the party and their campaigns as if a well-oiled take-no-prisoners corporate business that apologizes for nothing and for no one, even misbehaving governors and elitist Ivy League educated senators claiming to be populists. Republican candidates in general are better recruited, prepared, coached, financed, and packaged up regardless of their policies and qualifications, or lack of either. Their supporters seem to always to turn out, especially if fed a red-meat issue like guns, abortion, or critical race theory that led them to believe their way of life is under attack by a crazed mob of liberals.
Democrats seem to always need special motivation to get out the vote. Voter turnout for Democrats is notoriously unpredictable due to how fragmented the party is between inner-city disadvantaged voters of color, working-class union members, and liberal educated professionals. Democrats in the state, like much of the nation, do not always act like an organized party but more so a loosely bound coalition of tribes which share a few overlapping interests from time to time. As a result, they appear largely disorganized and are poor at communicating and selling what they believe in. Republicans are much better at defining Democrats than Democrats are themselves. Especially when Democrats try to move to the center – which keeps moving further to the right in Missouri – leaving few to trust Dems either on the left or right.
Another important trend that cannot be ignored is that over the years the citizens of Missouri as a whole appear to have become less informed, less curious, less educated, and less open-minded. Some are easy to manipulate with false narratives for why things are the way they are and who is to blame. The best example of this are the answers you hear when you ask the unvaccinated for their reasons why they refused to get a shot or much less wear a mask. These two acts to protect your family, community, and coworkers are the most conservative patriotic thing a citizenry could do during these times, but Republicans have made them out to be extreme government overreach.
But it’s hard to blame voters as local news media, like across much of America, have disappeared as community-based papers, radio stations and TV news programs became franchises of national conglomerates or victims of private equity vulture capitalists. As a result, rural voters end up getting their news from the four Fs: fox, faith, friends, and facebook. Since broadcasters went all digital some years ago when the FCC sold off the public airwaves, the signals received outside of cities has become so poor that rural folks gave up on TV all together. Unable to afford cable and with little access to high-speed broadband internet service, it is not surprising news literacy is low and disinformation is rampant.
Regrettably, if I lived in rural small-town Missouri with few good jobs, life and health always a battle, and the only (mis) information I heard for making political decisions and who to blame was from Fox News and Facebook, I might very well have unwittingly become a Republican voter contributing to the state turning from dull purple to bright red.