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Report from a Purple State

By Mary Jo Neitz

After the August 4, 2020 primary election, Missouri received national attention.  NYT reported that Black Lives Matter activist Kori Bush won the democratic nomination over incumbent William Lacy Clay in Missouri’s First Congressional District, where she is very likely to win in November.   In the same story, the Times covered Missouri’s passage of the Medicaid Expansion Amendment.  The vote was close, 53.3% in favor, 46.7 against.  The two-color county by county map provides a familiar picture: a sea of conservative no-votes surrounding a few progressive counties where a majority voted in favor.  The yes-voting counties reflect populations of Kansas City and St Louis.  The other two yes-voting counties are the homes of the next two largest cities, Springfield and Columbia.  Looking at the map it is easy to conclude that there was a narrow win in a conservative (Red) state with the more progressive (Blue) urban areas pitted against the rural areas. Then we are off and running into the familiar terrain of wondering why poor rural people vote against their own interests.  Looking beyond the two-color map to the numbers for counties suggests a significantly different story.  We see that the votes from urban counties were not enough to pass the amendment.  Thousands and thousands of votes came from rural counties.  Although they did not reach majorities in their counties, they contributed to the win.  Progressives cannot afford to dismiss out of hand these voters.

I moved to Missouri in 1980 to take a job in the Sociology Department at the University of Missouri in Columbia. I knew little about this place that would become my home.  I began to learn about Missouri’s history as a border state. I knew about the 1820 Missouri Compromise which brought Missouri into the union as a slave state, and that it did not join the confederacy.  I learned that during the civil war Missouri was the site of intense guerrilla warfare, with Federal Troops occupying parts of the state.  Parts of Missouri still maintain a distinctly southern atmosphere with Baptist churches dotting the landscape, with “tea” served iced and sweet.  In the northern third, the landscape and agricultural economy—now overwhelmingly corporate ag—resemble the Great Plains states, neighboring Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas.  Then there are the two urban centers, the older, St. Louis on the Mississippi River, an eastern city, and Kansas City with the look and feel of a western city. Politics reflects this complex mix.  In the twentieth century Missouri voters elected both Democrats and Republicans to national office.  When I moved here in 1980 Tom Eagleton (D) and John Danforth (R) represented Missouri in the Senate.  Both Democrats and Republicans have been elected to the US congress and the governorship.  In 2000 the popular Democratic governor Mel Carnahan ran against the incumbent John Ashcraft for the senate seat.  During the campaign Carnahan died in a plane crash, and bumper stickers read “Vote for the Dead Guy”.  Missourians did, and he won.  Carnahan’s wife, Jean, was appointed to take his seat in the Senate.

When I came to Missouri in 1980 I was informed that it was the most unionized state in the country, That turns out to have been an overstatement, but with 25% of the labor force unionized, it was 6th.   US automakers had several plants in the state, including a Chevy plant near St. Louis and a Ford plant in Kansas City.  But Missouri was also home to small shops that produced other goods.  The St. Louis based Brown Shoes, for example, had factories in small towns outside of the major metro areas.  By 1995 shoe factories in the US had closed. By 2000 Missouri tied for 20th place, with 13% of workers belonging to unions, and one traditional base of support for the Democratic party diminished.

Another surprising alliance drew votes away from the Democratic party. Already in the mid-1960s the National Conference of Catholic Bishops was monitoring state level changes in abortion laws and supporting the formation of Right to Life organizations. In 1967 they founded the National Right to Life Committee. After Roe v Wade (1973) the National Right to Life Committee formally separated from the Catholic church in order to attract more Protestants. In Missouri, Catholics and Protestants were segregated by culture and region (Catholics along the Missouri River, Baptists to the South and Methodists to the North) with Baptists and Catholics viewing each other with suspicion and hostility. In the last quarter of the 20th century, they found themselves on the same side of a number of issues, including abortion, but also gay marriage and stem cell research, an intense issue in Missouri.   By the end of the 20th century many urban, unionized Catholics, who in the past had voted Democratic, were voting Republican with the Protestants.   In 1996 Bill Clinton won Missouri’s electoral college votes, but the vote has gone Republican in the 2000s.  At this level, we look like a red state.

But state level politics are scrappier than that.   Drawing on the history and ongoing battles, I see evidence for a purple state.  In the 2000s three Democrats have won the governorship, and Democrat Claire McCaskill served two terms in the US Senate before being defeated in 2018.  Republicans currently have supermajorities in both the house and senate of the Missouri Assembly, something the DNC needs to care more about.  Recently Democrats have had successes with ballot initiatives. In 2018 a Right to Work Law was defeated, Clean Missouri (a call for redistricting) passed, and the Medicaid expansion passed in 2020.  I am excited by the presence of Bernie-Democrats who are willing to compete in districts which have been held by Republicans for many years, too often running unopposed. We cannot win presidential races without investment in local campaigns and grassroots support for a deeper progressive agenda.  The binary language of red state/blue state gets in the way of engaging people who have complicated pasts and multiple affiliations, and the many who do not vote at all. A Purple Missouri contains within it a vision of possibilities for Blue mobilization and progressive activism.


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