Government & Politics

Missouri Democrats plot a 2020 comeback strategy after recent election defeats

Rep. Emanuel Cleaver has been pitching former Vice President Joe Biden on a trip to Missouri, a state that hasn’t gone for a Democrat in a presidential election since 1996.

Cleaver, D-Missouri, believes the right Democratic nominee in the presidential race can “return Missouri to its status as a bellwether” and return the party to relevance in down ballot races across the state despite President Donald Trump’s 19-point victory in Missouri in 2016.

“We talk. We’ve known each other for years. I have not endorsed yet,” Cleaver said of Biden, who currently leads in national polls. “But I told my colleagues — black and white colleagues in the House — I’m only going to endorse someone who can help us in Missouri.”

Biden has a planned visit to St. Louis in September, but no Kansas City trips currently scheduled. In addition to Biden, Cleaver has also had conversations with Sen. Kamala Harris, D-California, and Sen. Cory Booker, D-New Jersey, in recent weeks.

South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg also sought a meeting with the eight-term congressman during his recent trip to Kansas City. Cleaver wasn’t able to meet the candidate because of scheduling conflicts, but Buttigieg sat down with Cleaver’s son, the Rev. Emanuel Cleaver III, at St. James United Methodist Church.

But Cleaver is particularly interested in having Biden visit the state because the Democratic frontrunner was on the ticket in 2008, the last time Missouri had a truly competitive presidential contest, when Barack Obama’s historic candidacy led to record turnout in Kansas City and St. Louis.

Republican John McCain narrowly edged out Obama to win the state, but the record turnout in the cities helped the Democratic candidates cruise to victory in the races for governor, attorney general, treasurer and secretary of state.

But in the past decade, Missouri has swung hard to the right.

Democrats fell short in every statewide race in 2016. Two years later, Democratic incumbent Sen. Claire McCaskill lost her Senate seat after a contentious race, which featured multiple visits to the state by Trump. The party heads into 2020 with only two of the state’s eight congressional seats, one statewide office and super-minority status in the state legislature.

The Missouri Democratic Party is embarking on dual strategies in 2020 to boost urban turnout to 2008 levels and win back rural voters who have strongly gravitated to Republicans in recent elections. It’s work that will be critically important as Auditor Nicole Galloway, that party’s only statewide office holder, prepares to launch a campaign for governor.

“I think it’s rather clear that victory depends on getting the maximum votes out in Kansas City and St. Louis and the group that has the potent punch is the African American community,” Cleaver said.

An internal party analysis, which was shared exclusively with The Star, lays out the problems facing the party and the strategies it’s pursuing to close the turnout gap with Republicans in statewide races.

The analysis estimates Missouri Democrats face a deficit of roughly 190,000 voters if turnout rates in 2020 resemble 2016.

“We plan on closing this gap by both making sure progressive candidates do better (persuasion) and increasing progressive turnout,” the document states. “Because of limited time, money and people, this needs to be done surgically.”

The strategy laid out in the document includes winning back voters in Republican-leaning areas, but it also provides plans to boost turnout in high Democratic areas, such as Kansas City, to 2008 levels and to increase voter registration rates among minority groups.

The analysis found that the majority of Asian and Hispanic citizens, two groups that strongly favor Democrats nationally, are not voting in Missouri. Boosting registration among these groups could lead to thousands of new Democratic voters, the analysis states.

The analysis estimates that African American voters turned out at a rate of 45.4 percent in 2018, a turnout rate that was below the turnout rate for white voters in every county with at least 100 registered black voters.

Missouri doesn’t track the race of voters, but the party calculates these unofficial turnout rates based on Census data and other factors.

“If Black voters had turned out at the rate of white voters in 2018, an additional 58,308 Black voters would have participated in the 2018 general election,” the analysis states.

Lauren Gepford, the executive director of the Missouri Democratic Party, clarified in an email that the analysis should not have compared the 2018 turnout rate against presidential years.

She emphasized that the statewide African American turnout rate in 2018 surpassed the two most recent mid-term elections with Senate races.

“We can’t say 2018 was a failure by party on (African American) turnout when rate exceeded previous midterms. Looking forwards, we have to do better than in 2016 and try to achieve 2008 and 2012 levels,” she said.

The analysis notes that 84 percent of the state’s African American voters live in Kansas City, St. Louis and St. Louis County. “Deep work to engage these voters is vital to increasing statewide representation in the electorate Black turnout rates,” the analysis states.

To help accomplish that goal the party has hired state Sen. Karla May of St. Louis and state Rep. Ashley Bland-Manlove of Kansas City to oversee efforts to build bridges with communities of color.

“The party came to me because they saw me organizing,” May said. “I’m an organizer. I started off as an organizer when I was 16… I’m already doing the work that they want to happen going forward.”

May said she’s been meeting with diverse groups of Missourians to hear about what they want from Democrats in 2020.

“People feel like their voice is not being heard and so in order for them to weigh in the party is listening,” May said.

Geoff Gerling, the executive director of the Jackson County Democratic Committee, said that he thinks it’s more efficient and effective for the party to drive up votes in Democratic-leaning areas than to flip votes in Republican-leaning areas.

But it’s possible to appeal to both urban and rural voters with the right message, he said.

“The takeaway is that you need to be able craft your message so you can deliver the same stump speech in the different parts of the state and not feel like you have to change your language from Missouri to ‘Mizzurah,’” Gerling said.

McCaskill faced criticism last year from some Democratic leaders in the state, including Cleaver and Rep. William Lacy Clay, for the perception that her campaign had focused on rural areas at the expense of urban outreach.

The former senator strongly rebuts the criticism. Her team calculated in its own analysis that the urban turnout rate in 2018 was 52 percent, a number that comes from combining turnout rates for Kansas City’s urban core and St. Louis, compared to 40 percent in 2006.

McCaskill argued in a presentation to the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics that dwindling support for Democrats in rural communities led to Democratic losses in 2016 and 2018.

The presentation, which was shared with The Star, says that in states dominated by urban and suburban communities a campaign strategy focused on turning out progressives and communities of color may be sufficient to win, but that this strategy falls short in Missouri.

“In states like Missouri, 2018 saw record-breaking turnout AND performance by Senator McCaskill among urban/suburban regions and progressives/well-educated/communities of color, but it was insufficient, especially when Trump is able to generate near-equal turnout/energy in his base,” the presentation states.

In her new role as an MSNBC analyst, McCaskill has occasionally angered some Democratic activists and operatives with her criticism of the party’s progressive wing, which she contends has limited appeal in the Midwest.

McCaskill’s presentation argues that Democrats must “improve performance among rural/exurban voters — find a way to break through Fox-news dominated communication and assumptions” and warns that ignoring “rural/exurban/lower education voters has long-term consequences.”

The presentation includes a chart tracking the party’s performance among urban, suburban and rural voters in presidential years. It shows the party’s support among rural voters plummeted after 2008, while support in the cities and suburbs was comparatively stable.

James Harris, a Republican strategist based in Jefferson City, said that McCaskill ran a strong campaign and her defeat in 2018 shows that the state has shifted away from Democrats for the foreseeable future.

“Where do you go get your numbers? They’ve maximized the cities and outstate Missouri’s going the other way,” Harris said.

“Missouri has moved into where we’re like a Tennessee, a solid Republican state. It’s not going to help any Missouri Democrats when the national party is moving further and further left.”

The state party’s analysis sets a goal of closing the gap in rural Missouri. It notes that in the 2018 auditor race Galloway won in 32 Missouri House districts where Democratic legislative candidates lost.

“Missouri Democrats are realistic that there is little chance of taking back a majority in the State (legislature) prior to redistrict reform, there are still considerable opportunities to pick up enough seats to get out of the super-minority,” the analysis states.

The party estimates it can win roughly 100,000 votes in Republican-leaning and strong Republican areas if it can get turnout to resemble 2008.

One strategy put forward in the party’s analysis is to target college campuses throughout Missouri. Another is to craft a message that appeals to working class Missourians regardless of race or geography.

“It’s about listening and it’s about understanding Democratic values aren’t just for urban areas,” said Hallie Thompson, a former congressional candidate who is serving as chair of the party’s newly reconstituted rural caucus.

“I don’t think we have the answer yet,” Thompson said. “But I do think one of the most important things for our strategy is we’re not going to be going out and telling people what the answers are. We’re going to be engaging in a conversation.”

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Bryan Lowry covers Kansas and Missouri politics as Washington correspondent for The Kansas City Star. He previously served as Kansas statehouse correspondent for The Wichita Eagle and as The Star’s lead political reporter. Lowry contributed to The Star’s investigation into government secrecy that was a finalist for The Pulitzer Prize.
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