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Jeanne Kirkton was out canvassing a few weeks ago along Lilac Avenue in Webster Groves, an old rail-line suburb 5 miles west of St. Louis. Lilac...
by | September 30, 2008
 

Jeanne Kirkton was out canvassing a few weeks ago along Lilac Avenue in Webster Groves, an old rail-line suburb 5 miles west of St. Louis. Lilac is a street of modest ranch houses and fine old trees, where lots of longtime residents -- some well into their 80s -- live next door to homes where yappy dogs pose a threat to the slumber of newborns. Kirkton is a Democrat running for the Missouri House. The first voter she encounters on the 600 block of Lilac is an older woman who promptly declares herself a Republican. Kirkton asks her whether she supports stem-cell research. When the woman says she does, Kirkton agrees, and informs her that "that's an issue where I differ with my opponent."

Kirkton has gotten used to running on "reverse wedge issues," trying to turn policy decisions that have profited Missouri Republicans against them in an affluent suburban area where public opinions are shifting. There are signs that the strategy is working. No Democrat has won in this district since its creation in 1966. But four years ago, Kirkton nearly unseated Mike Gibbons, now the state Senate president pro tem, by making an issue of his decisive vote to allow gun owners to carry concealed weapons. Kirkton actually beat Gibbons within the House district where she's now running. Today, area Republicans concede that she is well positioned to win a seat the GOP never had to worry about in the past.

For the past 32 years, Webster Groves has been represented in the Missouri House by Republican women with moderate to liberal positions on abortion and other social issues. They were able to attract independents and even some Democratic voters, while maintaining the loyalty of Republicans drawn to the party primarily by its anti-tax stance. In the primary this August, however, GOP voters rejected a moderate female candidate in favor of Randy Jotte, a man who takes a hard line against abortion and favors school vouchers. "I would think Kirkton's road is a little easier than Randy's, in terms of the perspective of the voters," says Laura Arnold, a political scientist at Webster University.

Republicans already have lost their majority status in St. Louis County, a collection of suburbs that fan out west from the St. Louis city line. There was a time not too long ago when the GOP assumed it could win statewide by carrying the county. Now it has to find its margins elsewhere, because St. Louis County has grown reliably Democratic over the past dozen years or so. That's in part due to demographic changes, such as the increasing presence of African Americans, who made up 14 percent of the population in 1990 but comprise 22 percent today. But it's also due to what Terry Jones, a University of Missouri-St. Louis political scientist, calls the "rejection of the social conservatism of the Republican Party by more urbanized and suburban voters. The Republican Party has set its course by appealing to rural and exurban issues in Missouri," Jones says. "That's turned off some suburban voters."

What's happening in St. Louis County is taking place in most of metropolitan America. Suburban voters, who will cast the majority of the votes in this year's election, are starting to tilt away from the GOP. Suburban newcomers, including minorities and immigrants who no longer cluster in core cities -- are leaning Democratic. Since 2004, Democratic takeovers of the Minnesota House, the Virginia Senate and both chambers of the Colorado legislature all have been the result of Republicans losing their hold on suburban territory.

This year, Ohio Democrats are pinning their hopes of winning the state House on four districts in suburban Franklin County, outside Columbus. Democratic dreams of ending the GOP's decades-old majority in the New York Senate also come down to suburban seats, both around New York City and Upstate. Last year, Democrats won their first Senate seat on Long Island in more than two decades. Control of the Pennsylvania House will turn on the question of whether Democrats can maintain or even expand on their recent strength in the suburbs around Philadelphia. "The so-called inner-ring suburbs are now almost as dense and almost as politically Democratic as the central cities," says Lawrence Levy, director of the Center for Suburban Studies, at Long Island's Hofstra University.

The result is that in some of the larger states, including Pennsylvania, New York and Illinois, Democrats have put statewide offices nearly out of reach for most Republicans. "The expectation used to be that the Republican vote in the suburbs would offset our loss in the city," says John Hancock, lead consultant to Missouri's Republican gubernatorial nominee, Kenny Hulshof. "Now their circle has gotten bigger to take in suburban areas and even some of the exurban areas."

The urbanization and Democratic "bluing" of the suburbs isn't happening everywhere. Suburbs in the nation's South and Southwest remain very much available to the GOP. In Georgia, Republicans owe their legislative majorities to suburban districts breaking for them over the past decade. Even outside the Sun Belt, less populated outer-ring or "fringe" suburbs continue to favor Republicans. President Bush carried 97 of the nation's 100 fastest-growing counties in 2004, a reflection of continuing Republican strength in lands of big houses on sprawling lots.

But in Missouri, as the Democratic core vote continues to extend outward from the central city of St. Louis, Republicans are left with less room with which to work. Although they have dominated state politics in recent years, they must turn out voters en masse in dozens of sparsely populated rural and exurban counties in order to offset not just the big cities but also their losses in the suburbs. "Running statewide for a Republican is a harder challenge," says Gibbons, the GOP state Senator who now is running for attorney general. "You have to gain a substantial margin in the smaller counties. That means you have to travel all over the state, and you also have to compete in suburban areas to hold them close."

"De Facto Blunt"

Missouri is a classic bellwether, having voted for the winning presidential candidate in every election but one over the past century. It is part Midwestern and part Southern. Large sections of the state maintained Civil War-era electoral patterns into the 1990s, when conservative rural voters finally broke their historic allegiance to the Democrats and began supporting the GOP. After half a century out of power in Jefferson City, Republicans took control of the state Senate in 2001 and the House a year later.

Conditions this year nevertheless favor Jay Nixon, the state attorney general running for governor on the Democratic ticket, in large part because of the unpopularity of the state's departing Republican governor, Matt Blunt. Nixon has enjoyed advantages in polls, name recognition and fundraising all year. He has been careful to position himself as a moderate Democrat, opposing gay marriage and supporting the death penalty. But his campaign has been based largely on portraying Republican Hulshof as a de facto Blunt, blaming the congressman for the perceived failures of the outgoing administration. Blunt severely cut Medicaid and sold off assets of the state's student loan operation to pay for construction projects. Those moves were received so poorly that Blunt would almost certainly have lost a bid for a second term, had he tried for it.

For his part, Hulshof has sought to position himself as an outsider, despite his dozen years in Congress, by noting that he has never held state office. He has blasted Nixon for promoting a health care expansion that he argues the state can't afford. His main task, though, has been in rebuilding the Republican coalition after a close primary. He's almost certain to win over the rural areas that broke strongly for his primary opponent, state Treasurer Sarah Steelman. But he faces a formidable obstacle in the suburbs. In order to counter Democratic strength in St. Louis, Kansas City and now St. Louis County, says political scientist Terry Jones, "a Republican needs to get over 55 percent in the major exurban counties -- Platte and Clay, outside of Kansas City, and St. Charles and Jefferson, in the St. Louis area."

That will be difficult. Democrat Nixon hails from Jefferson County himself, and may even carry it this year. But Nixon doesn't need to carry Jefferson or St. Charles -- he just needs to keep them close. "It's not that statewide Democrats or Barack Obama are going to win St. Charles County," says Tommy Roberts, a county councilman and the Democrats' local chair, "but if we get 47 percent of the vote, we're going to win statewide."

Invading St. Charles

The idea of running competitively in the St. Louis exurbs has suddenly become a central element in the Democratic playbook, thanks to a seemingly risky strategy in 2006 by Claire McCaskill, the Democratic nominee for the U.S. Senate. McCaskill declared victory on election night while she was still 70,000 votes down in the statewide count. The reason she was confident she'd ultimately prevail was that she had seen the returns from St. Charles County. She lost the county -- but she had cut her opponent's margin there sufficiently from her loss to Blunt in the 2004 gubernatorial race that she knew she'd win statewide. This turned out, indeed, to be the case, and was the culmination of her decision to compete in areas usually ignored by other Democrats. "What McCaskill did is, she showed us we have to campaign in every county," says Sam Page, the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor. "You look at every part of your state and improve your margin."

Democrats need to gain 11 seats statewide to take over the Missouri House next year. They are hoping to gain at least two of them in St. Charles County. The odds are long against their taking control this year, but the fact that there are three competitive elections for the House in St. Charles represents a startling turnaround.

Republicans have ruled the county, northwest of St. Louis, for the past 30 years. Over that time, St. Charles became one of the two richest sources of votes for statewide GOP candidates, and it has not elected a Democrat in any of its nine House districts in six years. Given those odds, Democrats frequently haven't even bothered running candidates in several of the districts. "We were in power 30 years ago," says Kristy Manning, a Democratic House candidate in the city of St. Peters. "But then Republicans started taking over and I think people got comfortable not doing anything."

Lately, though, the southeastern part of the county has become friendlier to Democrats, largely due to in-migration from north St. Louis County. All the precincts along St. Charles' southeastern border between the Missouri River and the Lewis and Clark Trail in the city of St. Charles supported John Kerry for president in 2004. In a couple of recent state House contests, Democrats came up just a few hundred votes short. As Manning walks along the cul-de-sacs that curve off Jungermann Road in St. Peters, she finds herself receiving thumbs up signs from many residents -- not in response to her pledges to bring down college costs or expand access to health care, but when she shares with them the simple fact that she's a Democrat. "The Democratic population is going up slightly," concedes her opponent, GOP state Representative Mark Parkinson. "But if you're right on the issues, you can win."

Parkinson won his seat in a special election this February by 315 votes. He jokes that his short time in office means he's "half of an incumbent," but he makes the most out of the name recognition and record he's achieved thus far, hailing his endorsement from Missouri Right to Life. Walking door to door through a subdivision near Laurel Park in St. Peters, Parkinson wears a U.S. Border Patrol ballcap and notes his co-sponsorship of Missouri's new law that steps up penalties on illegal immigrants. "In my opinion, it doesn't go far enough," he says. "I would make it a felony for an employer who knowingly hires or harbors illegals."

If Parkinson is aggressive about touting his conservative credentials, Manning makes a softer pitch. She tells voters that, as an aide to Democratic state Senator Joan Bray, she's had to "work across the aisle" to overcome the partisanship in Jefferson City and get things done. Bray, however, hails from a more liberal district in St. Louis County, and Democrats worry that Bray's policy stances might be used against Manning. Passing a car whose bumper sticker advertises that it's "insured by Smith & Wesson," Manning says, "I don't have a problem with the Second Amendment, but my boss does, so I may get stigmatized."

A New Democratic Breed?

Many of the newcomers to St. Charles County are union members, and most are Catholics. They bear a striking resemblance to the blue-collar "Reagan Democrats" whom Democrats alienated in the 1970s, and whose loyalties Barack Obama is struggling to regain this year. They tend to be bread-and-butter liberals on economic issues but strongly in favor of gun owners' rights and opposed to abortion.

Their votes this year, in both presidential and state balloting, will be crucial in many places besides suburban St. Louis. In Macomb County, Michigan, the place where the term Reagan Democrat was born in the 1980s, recent polling has shown support for John McCain over Obama, with white working-class voters expressing concerns about the Democratic nominee's experience and values.

Next door in suburban Oakland County, however, Obama holds the lead in a jurisdiction that has historically provided Michigan Republicans with a rich vein of votes. Five years ago, Democrats held only six of the 25 Oakland County commission seats; this year they are poised to win the 13th seat they need to take control for the first time since the commission was created in the mid-1960s. Oakland is an affluent, well-educated county with some of the best-funded school districts in the state. The fact that it's becoming more Democratic even as Macomb is flirting with Republicans is one small illustration of the current complexities of suburban allegiance. "Basically, the more prosperous suburbs seem to be more open to the Democratic appeals than the working-class suburbs," says political analyst Rhodes Cook, "which is really a change from a decade ago."

It's these sorts of upscale, highly educated voters that Jeanne Kirkton is targeting in her Webster Groves House campaign. Stem-cell research is an issue that's lost salience in most places, but Kirkton may be right in guessing it can bring local voters over to her side. Missouri voted only narrowly to approve a 2006 ballot measure to allow stem-cell research. But the measure passed overwhelmingly within the Webster Groves district, garnering 61 percent of the vote, and since then, voters there have expressed some resentment at the reluctance of the Republican legislature to fund it. Guns also remain a concern: Webster Groves cast the largest vote in the state against a concealed-carry proposition in 1999.

In 2004, President Bush carried the Webster Groves House district by 49 votes out of nearly 10,000 cast. Claire McCaskill collected 53 percent in her bid for governor. Two years later, McCaskill was up to 55 percent in her campaign for the U.S. Senate. "We were traditionally called a major Republican district," says Webster Groves Mayor Gerry Welch. "People will give us that label. I don't think that's the case anymore."

Randy Jotte, the Republican running against Kirkton, prefers to avoid party labels. He ran as an independent for an Ohio state Senate seat in 2000, taking just 4 percent of the vote. He says that experience taught him that people depend on party affiliation "to have a sense of who you may be," but he says that Webster Groves voters consistently demonstrate their political independence, "looking at individual candidates, digging in deeper." He points out that they have not been shy about going to the ballot to overturn city council decisions, as with a recent vote to block a redevelopment plan for a large plot of land across from City Hall. Passing by the light-rail line that bisects the county, Jotte calls it "the frontline of the frontlines. St. Louis is Democratic and from here west it's all Republicans."

In order to hold on to their majority in the legislature, Jotte believes, the GOP has to keep winning in traditionally Republican districts such as this one, even as party leaders come to recognize that such suburban areas pose greater challenges. "This race will be a good test case of whether it's really moved over to the Democratic side," says political scientist Laura Arnold.

Arnold is as struck by the changes in the local political culture as anyone. She grew up in Webster Groves, returning at the start of this decade after many years away. "That's when it really struck me," she says, "that this wasn't the little Republican suburb I grew up in anymore."

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