Missouri: Red or blue? Perhaps the bellwether state is neither

Monday, November 13, 2006

By DAVID A. LIEB

The Associated Press

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- A mere two years have passed since some political pundits proclaimed Missouri a "red state."

President Bush had recorded a solid re-election victory in Missouri. And voters had just re-elected a Republican U.S. senator, switched out a Democratic governor and lieutenant governor for Republican ones, and expanded the Republican majorities in the state House and Senate.

So what are we to make of last week's elections, when Missouri voters ousted a Republican U.S. senator in favor of a Democrat, chose a Democrat as auditor in the only other statewide race and gave Democrats modest gains in both the state House and Senate?

Has Missouri become a bit more blue? Has the red state turned purple?

Perhaps Missouri never really was as red as it appeared. Perhaps both the 2004 and 2006 elections reflect a different reality -- that Missouri was, and remains, a bellwether state, a battleground. Two years ago, the national winds favored Republicans. This year, they favored Democrats. And Missouri blew right along with them.

Political science professor Dave Robertson of the University of Missouri-St. Louis ranks among the state's most sought-out Election Day analysts. He never was a subscriber to the Missouri-is-a-red-state theory.

"I thought it was a bellwether state, and Missouri was trending Republican because the country was trending Republican," said Robertson, reflecting on the political status of things three days after Tuesday's elections. "It's throttled back from that a little bit, because the country has throttled back from that a little bit."

One of the most telling indicators of Missouri's bellwether status is its distinction of being on the winning side of every presidential election except one in the past 100 years. (In 1900, it chose Democrat William Jennings Bryan over Republican President William McKinley. Missouri's only other miss came in 1956, narrowly picking Democrat Adlai Stevenson of neighboring Illinois instead of Republican President Dwight Eisenhower.)

There was no presidential election this year, so Missouri's streak was not at stake. But an Election Day exit poll conducted for The Associated Press showed that about one-third of Missouri respondents cast their Senate vote at least partially to express opposition to the president.

The poll also showed fewer than half of Missouri voters approved of Bush's performance, following -- although not quite as strongly -- the national trend.

Another way to gauge Missouri's partisan tendencies is to examine the state legislature. Republicans retained control in Jefferson City even as they lost control in Washington. While Republicans rejoiced in the loss of just five state House seats and two Senate seats, Democrats rejoiced that they had gained legislative ground on the Republicans for the first time in 20 years.

Gain in Missouri

Indeed, the Democrats' gain in Missouri was not as impressive as nationally. It amounted to less than 4 percent of the legislative races on the ballot -- barely half of the Democrats' estimated 7.5 percent gain in Congress.

But the win-loss percentage is not a complete test of party strength. Dale Neuman, a professor emeritus at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, prefers to also compare the victory margins of Republican and Democratic legislators.

Following Neuman's lead, the AP analyzed all 163 Missouri House races and focused on ones where the 2004 winner won re-election in 2006. The AP further narrowed that group to competitive races by eliminating districts where a candidate ran unopposed in either year or received more than 80 percent of the vote both years.

The analysis showed that in 15 competitive seats retained by Democrats, their margin of victory increased by 7.3 percentage points from 2004 to 2006. By contrast, in 47 competitive seats retained by Republicans, their margin of victory decreased by 3.5 percentage points from 2004 to 2006.

Were Missouri a solidly red state, then Republican incumbents should have held or increased their victory margins in the next election, Neuman said. Instead it was the Democratic incumbents who generally increased their victory margins while the Republicans slipped.

Also of note: There were 13 Democrats elected in competitive races in 2004 who ran unopposed in 2006. By contrast, there were 16 Republicans unopposed in 2004 who had to defeat competitive challengers this year. If those races are included in the calculation, then the Democrats' victory margin grew by nearly 18 percentage points from 2004 to 2006 while the Republicans' victory margin declined by 9 percentage points.

Neuman says the statistical legislative analysis is most revealing.

"(Some people could claim), back in 2002 and 2004 folks were right, Missouri was starting to become red and now Missouri is starting to become blue again," Neuman said. "But I think the better answer is Missouri never really was a red state. It is a battleground state."

The real test of that theory may come in the 2008. That's when the next battle will occur for the presidency, governor's office and legislature.


EDITOR'S NOTE: Capitol Correspondent David A. Lieb covers Missouri government and politics for The Associated Press.

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