ST. LOUIS • In the moment, Tuesday night’s stunning sweep of Missouri by Republican candidates at every level of government looked like a political revolution.
But in hindsight, it was arguably evolution — the continuation of a process that has been steadily grinding along for the past decade or so, gradually transforming a previously “purple” state into a bright “red” one.
Once the winners are sworn in next January, that transformation will be complete. It will be difficult to find a much more Republican state than Missouri at that point.
• The GOP won or held all six statewide offices on Tuesday’s ballot, including four state-level seats previously held by Democrats and a nationally targeted U.S. Senate seat.
• Republicans in the Legislature kept their veto-proof majority — though it’s window dressing now, with a new governor of their own party coming into power.
• Ballot measures, too, skewed right, with voters defeating two cigarette tax-hike initiatives and passing a voter photo-identification measure.
• Missouri pre-election polls, like those nationally, were wildly off, almost entirely on the side of massively underestimating Republican strength. Missouri’s Senate and gubernatorial races both were supposed to be squeakers, and neither was.
• As of next year, Missouri will have just two statewide Democratic officials, and both of those on shaky ground. U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill likely would have lost her seat in 2012 against any Republican other than Todd Akin, a gift she can’t expect again in 2018. And state Auditor Nicole Galloway was appointed to that post by soon-to-be former Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon to fill a vacancy left by the suicide of her elected Republican predecessor.
“Missouri was such a great bellwether state for much of the 20th century. What the hell happened?” Ken Warren, political scientist at St. Louis University, asked rhetorically on Wednesday.
The answer, he said, is a combination of factors specific to this election — an epic Republican get-out-the-vote effort in rural and suburban Missouri areas, combined with big coattails from GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump — along with more long-term factors that aren’t likely to change back any time soon.
It isn’t that Missouri’s population is changing. “Missouri hasn’t had much changing demographics,” Warren noted. For example, it hasn’t become significantly more black or Hispanic lately, as some of the country has.
But if you’re standing in one place while those around you move left, you might appear to be moving right. “That’s one of the reasons Missouri has probably left its bellwether status,” he said.
It might also be that Tuesday’s dramatic shift in Missouri was simply the end of a balancing act that was only going to last for so long.
In a nation of states largely controlled by one party or the other, Missouri for the past eight years has been in an unusual straddle. Its Legislature is solidly Republican. But in 2012, every statewide office on the ballot except one went to the Democrats, to the point that Republicans this year were lamenting their seeming inability to extend their ground-level success upward.
Nixon epitomized the “conservative Democrat” approach that seemed, for a time, to keep those Missouri Democrats alive despite their politically red surroundings. This year’s Democratic gubernatorial nominee, Chris Koster, a former Republican, used the same approach, stressing his law-and-order background as a prosecutor and racking up pro-gun and pro-agriculture endorsements that usually go to Republicans.
Yet even moving as far right as a Democrat reasonably could, Koster apparently didn’t get right enough. In unofficial statewide tallies, he lost by almost 6 percentage points to Republican Eric Greitens, a former Navy SEAL with no previous political experience but an agenda of traditional conservative goals.
More telling, Koster was almost entirely shut out of rural Missouri, winning just four counties centered around St. Louis, Kansas City and Columbia. Four years ago, Nixon won 44 counties, most of them in deep-red territory.
It would be tempting to attribute Greitens’ success to his Trump-like outsider status. But how does that explain U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., a consummate insider who easily won his second term Tuesday against Democratic challenger Jason Kander?
It wasn’t the “outsider” thing; it was the party, stupid. “Missouri has just become quite a Republican, conservative state,” said Warren, in large part due to greater motivation among conservatives who were already here.
Turnout figures from Tuesday bear that out. Turnout was up slightly statewide from four years ago, but with telling regional differences. In heavily Democratic St. Louis, St. Louis County and Kansas City, turnout for the governor’s race dropped by 41,000 votes from 2012. In the rest of the state — mostly rural, heavily Republican — it was up by more than 90,000.
Other indicators of Missouri’s increasing redness abound.
Missouri’s presidential record in the past three elections forms a lengthening right-ward line. President Barack Obama barely lost the state to Republican John McCain in 2008, by just over one-tenth of 1 percent. Four years later, Obama lost here to Republican Mitt Romney by almost 10 percentage points. On Tuesday, Democrat Hillary Clinton — whose husband, Bill, won Missouri twice in the 1990s — lost the state to Trump by almost 20 percentage points.
Republicans on Tuesday won every contested race in Jefferson County, a once-solidly Democratic area that has been trending toward the GOP in recent years. Trump and all other GOP statewide nominees won handily in the county, as did Republican candidates for the Legislature, county offices and judgeships.
Two Democrats appointed earlier this year by Nixon to fill judicial vacancies were dumped by voters in favor of Republican challengers. So was Circuit Judge Nathan Stewart, a Democrat elected in 2010. He lost to Republican Dianna Bartels.
“Trump really connected (in) Missouri. He had coattails. There’s no question,” Warren said.
But it was less about turning the state into something new than about nudging it to the redder place it was already headed. “For the foreseeable future,” Warren said, “I don’t see that changing.”
Walker Moskop and Mark Schlinkmann of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.