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Missouri Democrats gather on less-than-friendly rural turf for annual Democrat Days

File Photo

Northeast Missouri no longer votes for many Democrats, either to the General Assembly or for statewide office.

Even so, many of Missouri’s most prominent Democrats will be in Hannibal this weekend to participate in a tradition that has gone on for decades. Some of northeast Missouri's remaining Democrats will be hosting the 45th annual Democrat Days, the first of a series of regional gatherings around the state that go on for months.

The state Democratic Party has no official role in operating Democrat Days (although sometimes the party helps attract speakers).  Still, the event long has had the status of being Missouri Democrats’ version of New Hampshire or Iowa. 

Democrat Days is often where campaigns are launched.

This year, Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster will deliver his first major speech since officially filing for governor. 

Secretary of State Jason Kander, who’s challenging Republican incumbent Roy Blunt for the U.S. Senate, also will address the crowd.  And state Auditor Nicole Galloway, in office less than a year, will deliver some of her first political remarks.

Koster will headline Saturday’s brunch, often the best-attended (and longest) event of the weekend.  Koster was the main speaker last year as well.

Kander will speak at the Saturday night banquet where he will introduce the keynote speaker, U.S. Rep. Seth Moulton.

Moulton, like Kander, is a military veteran – an indication that veterans issues, and Kander’s differences with Blunt, will be among the dinner topics.

Former U.S. Rep. Russ Carnahan, D-St. Louis, says he'll be at Democrat Days as well -- resurrecting his father's (the late Gov. Mel Carnahan) traditional 7:30 a.m. Saturday breakfast.

Event's fortunes dwindled along with rural Democrats

In its heyday, Democrat Days was a magnet for national figures. Bill Clinton packed the hotel when he showed up in 1992, on the eve of the state’s presidential primary.  A few years later, Tipper Gore – then-wife of Vice President Al Gore – stopped by.

In 2000, Democratic presidential hopeful Bill Bradley – who grew up in Crystal City – made a pre-primary stop at Democrat Days to make a final pitch in his unsuccessful quest to defeat Gore for the party’s nomination.

But since then, Democrat Days’ crowds have often dwindled in size – reflecting, in part, the troubles facing Missouri Democrats in much of rural Missouri.

Take, for example, northeast Missouri’s Marion County, which includes part of Hannibal.  In 1996, the Clinton/Gore narrowly carried the county over the GOP presidential ticket of Bob Dole and Jack Kemp. That was the last time a Democratic presidential ticket carried the county.

Chris Koster received the backing of several major agricultural groups, including the Missouri Farm Bureau.
Credit Missouri Soybean Association
Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster campaigning in rural Missouri, and wearing a plaid shirt.

By 2012,  Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney captured almost twice as many votes in Marion County as President Barack Obama.

Since 2010, the remaining Democratic state legislators in rural northeast Missouri have left office – either via term limits or because they were ousted by Republicans.

Koster, a Republican until 2007, appears to have become keenly aware of the rural challenges facing Missouri Democrats. That may explain why he’s shown up at every Democrat Days (often sporting jeans and a plaid shirt) since he was elected as a Democrat in 2008.

Meanwhile, Gov. Jay Nixon – who used to often appear at the event’s brunch – has skipped many Democrat Days since he took office. And he isn’t expected at this one.

Instead, Nixon has sought to bolster the state party’s annual fundraising event – now known as the Truman Dinner -- held on friendlier urban turf in St. Louis. Still, Koster wore a plaid shirt at that affair as well.

Jo Mannies is a freelance journalist and former political reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.