Election 2016 Post-Mortem Series: How Progressives Can Take the Reins of the Missouri Democratic Party

Part 1: All is Not Lost for Progressives in Missouri

By Danny Gladden, MBA, MSW, LCSW
Community Social Worker

By now, you have had time to digest the 2016 election results. If you are a progressive living in Missouri, you are likely making your way through the stages of grief. As a social worker, I often find myself helping folks through tough moments. Kubler-Ross’ stages of grief and loss are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance — I feel as though I have experienced or observed all of those over the last two weeks, including acceptance.

I have heard many of my progressive friends accept the fact that Missouri is officially a deep red state and suggest that liberal utopias such as New York, Chicago or San Francisco look inviting. But I encourage you to hold off on acceptance for just a moment.

The implications of the 2016 election on our community’s most vulnerable citizens will be catastrophic, but I am not ready to concede Missouri to the conservative majority.

We must not accept the 2016 results as the new status quo; it is neither moral nor strategic.

Missouri’s History of Shifting Political Powers

Missouri has always had a rich and fascinating political history. Only two years in our state history — 1869 and 1870 — have republicans held all statewide offices, majorities in the MO House & Senate, both United States Senate seats, a majority of United States House seats, and the White House. If Missouri progressives do not reverse course, 2018 will look like 1869.

Missouri Democrats filled the Governor’s Mansion from 1945 to 1972, taking a break in the 1980s, and resuming power from 1992 to 2016, with the exception of four years in 2000. Missouri Democrats also maintained majorities in the Missouri House and Senate from 1955 until 2001. In 2001, Republicans gained control of the Missouri Senate and in 2003, Republicans gained control of the Missouri House.  Since 2000, Senate Democrats have watched their caucus dwindle from 18 down to eight of 34 Senators, and since 2003, House Democrats watched their caucus shed 42 seats, down to a total 45 out of 163 members.

Reviving a Statewide Coalition

Missouri Republicans have done a much better job of remaining competitive in all corners of Missouri, recruiting and electing non-partisan aldermen, mayors, school board members and republican county treasurers, prosecutors, etc. These office holders served as a farm team of potential candidates that were used to pluck away at incumbent House and Senate Democrats, and fill openings when members were term limited out. Republicans have office holders in all 114 of Missouri’s counties while vast portions of the state have no Democratic office holders.

In 2016, 66 Republican House candidates and four Republican Senate candidates were unopposed. In many counties, only conservative candidates filed for local office. Despite our voting options, the state is still home to a large coalition voters, both pro-worker and anti-racist. Donald Trump’s margin in Missouri was impressive, but he did not win by changing the landscape of the Missouri electorate.

Trump’s lopsided victory in Missouri meant a death knell for close down-ballot races. For example, while Donald Trump beat Clinton by 19%, Blunt beat Kander by 3% and Greitens bested Koster by 6%. Kander’s 3% loss and Trump’s win with 129,599 fewer Missouri voters than 2008 provides a little progressive hope for the future.

To find that hope, just look back to 2008, when Missouri saw the largest voter turnout in its history with more than 2.9 million votes cast — 69.4% voter turnout. That election saw Barack Obama narrowly lose to John McCain by less than 4,000 votes statewide.  In 2012, Missouri saw 160,298 fewer voters and in 2016, 129,599 fewer voters turned out than in 2008.

Some more good news: despite Missouri’s deep red outcome on November 8, 2016, Democrats added one seat to their House caucus and one seat to their Senate caucus for a total of nine out of 34 senators and 46 out of 163 House members.  

However, if Democrats and progressives are going to dramatically increase membership in the Missouri General Assembly, candidate recruitment and development for all municipal, county and state legislative races will be essential.

Leveraging City Progressives

If progressives are to find success in Missouri, St. Louis and Kansas City metropolitan area voters must be inspired to turn out. As noted above, 129,599 fewer voters cast ballots in 2016 vs. 2008; 120,360 of them or 92% of the statewide abstention came from St. Louis City, St. Louis County, Kansas City, and Jackson County. If those additional 120,360 votes had been cast this year, it quite possibly could have pushed Jason Kander over the edge to victory.

We saw in 2008 and in 2012 that Missouri doesn’t even need to go blue in the presidential race in order to elect statewide Democrats. If we support statewide candidates who favors workers’ and civil rights over corporate interests, they can bring progressive voters to the polls.  

Forging Ahead

Mobilize Missouri is committed to working with other progressive organizations to enhance voter engagement, as well as aid in the recruitment and promotion of progressive candidates in advance of the 2018 midterm elections. St. Louis and Kansas City historically underperform in the midterms and that will need to change if we are going succeed. All is not lost. There is progressive hope for Missouri’s future but only if we thoroughly engage voters in St. Louis, Kansas City, and every corner of this great state by giving them a compelling reason to participate in this process.