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Messenger: Fifty years after Danforth revived the Missouri GOP, the script has been flipped

Messenger: Fifty years after Danforth revived the Missouri GOP, the script has been flipped

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President Trump campaigns for Missouri Attorney General and Republican U.S. Senate candidate Josh Hawley in Columbia

Missouri Attorney General and Republican U.S. Senate candidate Josh Hawley addresses the crowd alongside President Donald Trump during a Make America Great Again rally on Thursday, Nov. 1, 2018, at Hangar 350 at the Columbia Regional Airport. Photo by Laurie Skrivan, lskrivan@post-dispatch.com

Former U.S. Sen. John C. Danforth is the paradox that explains an oddity in Tuesday’s election results.

The blue wave that swept over much of the nation — flipping the U.S. House to Democratic control amid heightened voter disgust over the corrupt presidency of Donald Trump — splashed into a Missouri flood wall.

Attorney General Josh Hawley, a Republican, defeated incumbent Sen. Claire McCaskill, who would have been the last Missouri Democrat to leave the room and turn out the lights were it not for Auditor Nicole Galloway holding on against the worst Republican auditor candidate since the GOP nominated a felon in 2002.

Hawley was Danforth’s guy. They met at a Yale Law School dinner when Hawley was still a student and Danforth was the smitten elder statesman. Enough so that years later, Danforth, a Never Trumper, turned a blind eye to Hawley’s cynical embrace of the president, intended to ensure the support of rural Republicans who love the president for all the wrong reasons.

Here’s what Danforth wrote about Trump around the time Hawley was officially entering the Senate race: “We cannot allow Donald Trump to redefine the Republican Party. That is what he is doing, as long as we give the impression by our silence that his words are our words and his actions are our actions. We cannot allow that impression to go unchallenged.”

So much for that.

This is the dilemma that has earned Danforth the derisive “Saint Jack” nickname in some political circles, including within his own party. At his righteous best, Danforth speaks truth to power that appeals to reasonable people of all parties, as he did in his book “Faith and Politics,” where he derided the evangelical right’s hold on his Republican Party. Or when he opined after the death of his friend Tom Schweich, the former state auditor who committed suicide, that “words can kill.”

The truth about Hawley’s election victory is that words didn’t matter much.

And voters didn’t care.

The same voters who sent him to the U.S. Senate passed several important measures that Hawley didn’t support.

On Tuesday, Missourians approved the legalization of medical marijuana in the state.

They raised the minimum wage. And they passed a wide-ranging ethics measure that will also improve the way legislative districts are drawn in the state, reducing the gerrymandering that has given Republicans their current veto-proof margins in the state.

Danforth was a vocal supporter of this last measure, Amendment 1.

It wasn’t necessarily out of character.

Fifty years ago, in a much different Missouri, Danforth won his first election, becoming the state’s attorney general at the age of 32, and the only statewide elected Republican. He ran against the incumbent party’s corruption then, which wasn’t in many ways different from the corruption of today that spurred Amendment 1.

As the British historian Lord Acton taught us: Absolute power corrupts, absolutely.

In 1968, Danforth challenged Missouri Democrats to consider a vote for him.

“I dare you,” he said.

Five decades later he’s passed the torch to a protégé who shares a propensity with Danforth for deciding that words matter a lot, except for when they don’t.

But 50 years after Danforth gave the Missouri Republican Party a pulse, it is no longer his party.

It’s the Party of Trump, and Hawley won because of it.

The script has been flipped, and there is but one young Democrat standing — Galloway, in her own way forever tied to Danforth because the 36-year-old was appointed to office after his last protégé died.

Under Amendment 1, she will choose the nonpartisan demographer whose job it will be to redraw legislative districts to bring more political balance to a state that used to be known for it.

Will she, like Danforth before her, make her mark by daring Missouri voters to release the state from one-party rule?

Check back in 50 years.

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