It’s funny how old names can bounce into your head even if you haven’t thought about them for years.
For some reason after Tuesday’s election, I was thinking about the plight of Missouri Democrats when the phrase “Death Valley Days” danced by.
Readers of a certain vintage will remember that long-running TV Western. Truth is, I don’t recall the program as much as I flash back to its sponsor — “Borax,” which was some sort of laundry additive.
Now why in the world would I be thinking about “Death Valley Days” in connection with Missouri Democrats? That’s precisely where they are today: stranded in Death Valley without any water, without any help in sight.
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It’s almost as if Tuesday’s results complete a career arc for me. When I arrived in Jefferson City in 1988, and in ensuing years, Democrats were almost as dominant as Republicans are today. Claire McCaskill was a state representative from Kansas City with a future as sparkling as one of these fall afternoons we’ve enjoyed.
But look at Missouri Democrats today. They soon will hold neither U.S. Senate seat. Six of the state’s eight U.S. House seats are in GOP hands. Republicans retained their supermajorities in the General Assembly. And they’ve got all the statewide offices, save one.
Missouri Democrats are at their nadir.
Around 10 p.m. on election night, things didn’t even look good for Auditor Nicole Galloway, the one Democrat in statewide office who survived the onslaught. She rallied when the big-city vote came in. McCaskill wasn’t so fortunate.
When the senator visited The Star recently, I asked about the future of the state Democratic Party should she lose. McCaskill hardly blinked. She pointed to the late 1980s when Republicans controlled all but one statewide office. Just a few years later, aided by scandal, Democrats rebounded, swooping into the Capitol, led by Gov. Mel Carnahan.
Later in the 1990s, Democrats had it all, occupying all six statewide posts and dominating the General Assembly to boot, although Republicans Jack Danforth and Kit Bond held both U.S. Senate slots. McCaskill’s point: The pendulum is always swinging.
Still, the outlook today for Missouri Democrats could hardly be bleaker.
“This is the most challenging moment Missouri Democrats have ever faced,” former state party chairman Roy Temple said.
The road back often hinges on a transformative personality. Once upon a time in Missouri, that person was Jack Danforth, who won attorney general in his 30s and kick-started the Republican renaissance.
Democrats can’t point to a Danforth today and, believe me, they’re looking.
In early 2017, a lawyer named John Gibson took over the Kansas Democratic Party. He had nothing in the tank. No prospects for governor. No members in his state’s congressional delegation and, as I wrote at the time, barely enough members in the Legislature to make a dent.
But Gibson had something to hang onto, and that was a belief that the Kansas GOP had tilted too far to the right. Gibson saw potential that few others could see.
“There’s not a place I’d rather be as a Democrat right now,” he told me at the time.
Today, he’s got a newly elected governor and a member of Congress, and he almost had two.
No doubt our politics ebb and flow. But Missouri Republicans are coming up on the 20th anniversary of their seizure of the General Assembly, and there’s no ebb in sight.