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On the Trail, an occasional column by St. Louis Public Radio political reporter Jason Rosenbaum, takes an analytical look at politics and policy across Missouri.

On the Trail: Democrats mull whether anti-abortion rights candidates would regain political ground

Jackson County Committeeman Jalen Anderson speaks to a group of Pike County Democrats last week in Bowling Green.
Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio
Jackson County Committeeman Jalen Anderson speaks to a group of Pike County Democrats last week in Bowling Green.

BOWLING GREEN, Mo. — After Missouri Democrats were routed in rural areas last year, the party’s leaders promised to be more aggressive in fielding candidates for the legislative districts ceded to Republicans.

Accomplishing that goal may require them to promote and fund House and Senate aspirants with socially conservative views on abortion — a strategy that makes some uneasy in a party that largely supports abortion rights. The talk also comes as the legislature holds a special session to strengthen abortion restrictions in Missouri.

This complicated dynamic was on display last week during a meeting of the Pike County Democratic Club, where officials from the statewide party took suggestions from the audience about building a platform. When the subject turned to abortion, Eolia resident Andy Young brought up the hostility candidates who are generally opposed to abortion rights face. Young pointed to how Omaha, Nebraska, mayoral candidate Heath Mello, who voted for some abortion restrictions while he was in the Nebraska legislature, lost his race after being excoriated by abortion rights activists.

“I would like the national party and the state party not to come into places like this where we have not necessarily liberal views in all cases,” Young said. “I’m very liberal. But these people are not necessarily all that liberal. And they have a right to be heard as Democrats as well. It shouldn’t just be people who think like me.”

Democrats dominated in northeast and southeast Missouri for decades, even though they tended to vote for abortion restrictions. That’s why some are thinking now that candidates who oppose abortion rights might have a better chance at beating Republicans at the ballot box.

“The union that I worked at, we talked politics and I was the officer in the union,” Herb Sisco, a retired union member who lives in Pike County, about 75 miles northwest of St. Louis. “Basically, we were pretty much 100 percent Democrats. All of them were. That’s why it’s very hard for me to understand, other than a gun issue or an abortion issue, those single issues will prompt a Democrat to vote Republican. I don’t know why. I wouldn’t. But they do.”

Internal debate over abortion rights has been going on for decades, Missouri Democratic Party Chairman Stephen Webber said. There have been a number of prominent Democrats over the years who opposed abortion rights, including former U.S. Sen. Tom Eagleton and former Gov. Joe Teasdale.

“It’s not a new fight,” Webber said. “We’re the party of health care, of public education, of public schools, working families. We need to do a better job connecting on these issues in rural communities. And the candidates we’re going to be looking for are folks that are willing to work hard and communicate that with conviction.”

Jalen Anderson, a committeeman from Jackson County who is leading the Missouri Democratic Party’s effort to create a platform, said candidates should stand by their convictions on issues such as abortion rights.

But, he added: “Democrats always love to focus on that one specific issue of abortion, but we never talk about the rest of women’s health. The abortion issue is something that we have to focus on, because we are the party that believes in what the Supreme Court decided with Roe v. Wade — and we believe that it should be protected. Because we can’t go back to the archaic ways of hiding in shame.”

A mixed record

In the past decade, Democrats who oppose abortion rights have a mixed record when it comes to winning legislative seats. 

Planned Parenthood supporters marched silently past the organization's Central West End clinic as anti-abortion activists prayed during a 2017 demonstration.
Credit File photo | Camille Phillips | St. Louis Public Radio
Planned Parenthood supporters march silently past the organization's Central West End clinic as anti-abortion activists pray in this Feb. 11, file photo. Democratic officials have largely supported abortion rights.

In 2006, former Sen. Frank Barnitz of Lake Spring, Rep. Paul Quinn of Monroe City and Rep. Tom Shivley of Shelbyville were able to keep rural districts in the Democratic column in 2006. But all three of those candidates were voted out of office by 2012, and there hasn’t been much of an effort to win those seats back.

Meanwhile, a number of socially conservative Democrats, like former state Reps. Terry Swinger of Caruthersville, and Joseph Fallert of Ste. Genevieve failed at winning rural Senate districts over the past few election cycles. The last two Democratic candidates that captured GOP Senate seats, Scott Sifton of Affton and Jill Schupp of Creve Coeur, are fairly vocal proponents of abortion rights.

Socially conservative candidates aren’t the solution to the party’s woes, NARAL Pro-Choice Missouri Executive Director Alison Dreith said, because Republicans are “out and proud on their issues — and not wavering depending on the constituency that they’re talking to and trying to paint a picture of somebody who they are not.”

She praised the Democrats for the goal of running in 140 of Missouri's state House seats and all of Missouri's state Senate seats in the 2018 elections, but noted that “the Democrats now have some rebuilding to do when it comes to trust. I wouldn’t necessarily trust a party that was coming and knocking on my door or asking for money for the first time in a really long time.”

It’s worth noting that the last three Democratic governors, Mel Carnahan, Bob Holden and Jay Nixon, all hail from rural areas of the state. All supported abortion rights, with Carnahan and Nixon seeing exceptional support for two terms in rural counties.

On the Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads from the world of Missouri politics.

Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.