In Chillicothe, Missouri, voters feel the Democratic Party left their rural concerns behind
In 2012 there were still enough people open to voting for Democrats in Livingston County to help Claire McCaskill retain her seat as a U.S. Senator from Missouri. Ten years later, a handful of die-hard blue voters find themselves fighting a red wave of pro-Republican sentiment.
Making sense of the 6th — As Missouri has quickly swung from bellwether to deeply and reliably conservative, this series, a collaboration between St. Louis Public Radio, KCUR and the Midwest Newsroom, attempts to hear from voices on the ground in Missouri's 6th Congressional District, which spans the northern third of the state, to understand changes in the political landscape.
When Rusty Black taught agriculture at Chillicothe’s Grand River Technical School, he started each school year by having his students do a small exercise.
“I used to have my students write down in their notebooks at the very front page at the beginning of school, ‘if you’re not liberal, you have no guts, and if you’re not conservative, you have no brains,” Black said. “Many kids would think that’s a political statement, but it really wasn’t.”
Black meant the maxim as a reminder to his students that they could be both conservative- and liberal-minded.
The phrase also reflected, in a way, Black’s own political life. His parents were Blue Dog Democrats, more conservative-leaning Democrats who stood for fiscal conservatism and had an affinity for the labor movement. That kind of political philosophy buoyed the political fortunes of Democrats like Jerry Litton, a Chillicothe rancher who sixth district voters sent to Congress in 1972.
Black said he leaned Republican during his youth.
“There were things at home that I disagreed with my father and parents on,” Black said. “I thought I was a little bit more Republican than my IBEW (International Brotherhood of Electric Workers) labor union father and mother were who die-hard conservative Democrats at that point and time.”
Politics stuck with Black, leading him to elected office after he retired from teaching. He now serves as a Republican in the Missouri House of Representatives, first elected in 2018.
But the politics of Livingston County changed in Black's lifetime.
Conservative Democrats once held sway in Chillicothe, the county seat of Livingston County in north-central Missouri.
As recently as 2012, Democrat Claire McCaskill carried Livingston County in her bid for a second term as U.S. Senator of Missouri against Republican Todd Akin. But in the years since, the party’s influence has faced near-extinction here and in other areas of Missouri’s expansive 6th Congressional District, which covers much of northern Missouri from its western border to the east.
Black said Democrats started abandoning rural voters decades ago.
“Rural Democrats at that point in time felt like they had a stronger voice in the party than what they do now,” Black said. “My parents and other groups of those Democrats thought that their values were being attacked by the party they were a part of, and they slowly walked away from it.”
‘This town was Democrat’
Black’s view is backed up by Chillicothe native Danny Batson, who leads the Grand River Historical Society in Livingston County. An independent voter most of his life, Batson said he vowed to never vote for a Democrat four years ago.
“It’s not that I don’t like Democrats. I have lots of Democrat friends — but it's a party that in my opinion has gone too far,” Batson said. “I just can’t find anything on the Democratic side at this point in time that I agree on. You could have asked me that 10 years ago and I could have found some things.”
Batson said issues like abortion and same-sex marriage pushed the Democratic party too far away from his family’s values, a trend he’s seen in many other voters in Chillicothe.
“This town was Democrat and it has shifted. It has shifted back the other direction and the Democrats have done that for us,” Batson said. “They’ve hurt their own party is what they’ve done.”
But he also sees a difference in Democratic candidates. For Batson, Democratic politicians from the 1970s, like Jerry Litton, cared more about rural voters and supporting rural America than current-day Democrats.
“I put a speech that he (Litton) did in Kansas City on our museum Facebook page a while back and he sounds just like a Republican,” he said. “But he was a Democrat.”
A small group of Democrats meets occasionally at the Livingston County Library, hoping to find a way to reverse the party’s fortunes.
The Livingston County Democratic Club held a meeting on Oct. 12, less than a month before the November midterm election. They sat around a small table in the library’s Ruddy-Smithson room, named after Lena Ruddy-Smithson, a Democrat and former dean of the now-shuttered Chillicothe Business College who died in 1978.
Late in the election cycle, members of the club tried to figure out which candidate should receive their $400 donation and which of their members were available to knock on doors to talk to voters.
One member, Mary Damm, just turned 100. She can’t walk, so she planned to make phone calls.
Kris Daniels, a retired public defender, campaigns for Democrats in Chillicothe every election cycle. Increasing partisan polarization over the years has made her task an unpleasant one.
“I was told to get off the property. I was called all sorts of names. I was told I was immoral — certainly because I was only a Democrat,” Daniels said. “I’ve never considered myself to be immoral at all.”
She said misinformation on television and social media and heated topics like abortion and critical race theory make it hard to get through to neighbors.
“When I ask people, it’s always one or a few issues,” Daniels said. “It’s very divisive. I think we’ve all lost friends in the last few years. I know I certainly have.”
But some blame falls on the Democratic party itself, Daniels said. Like Rusty Black, Daniels feels that the Democratic party left behind rural Democrats as the urban electorate became more important to the party.
“I think the Democratic party at the state level, in particular, has to step up,” Daniels said. “They forget there’s a lot of Democrats out here that would push them over the line if they would reach out.”
Rusty Black said he often wonders how long it will be before another political shift sways voters from one party to another, like when his Democratic parents and family members shifted to the right and Livingston County transformed into a Republican stronghold.
“I think about cycles. Economic cycles that happen, cycles in agricultural prices commodities and things like that,” Black said. “I wonder what political cycle there is now and how long it will be this way before we start changing again.”