What's the Matter With Missouri?

State Republicans have used divisive social issues legislation to strengthen the conservative coalition and push out progressives.

Matthew Black / Flickr

In the early 1990s, Democrats dominated both houses of the Missouri Legislature. State Senator Danny Staples was a typical member of the majority party: an old-school pro-gun, pro-life Democrat from southeast Missouri who operated a resort on the Jack's Fork River. He hailed from Eminence (pop. 600) and explained his aggressive political style thusly: "Ya don't get nuthin from the Sears catalog 'less ya ask for it."

But in 1992, Missouri voters passed a law limiting legislators to eight years in each chamber. Current legislators weren't grandfathered, and so incumbents' days were numbered.

Rodney Jetton didn't vote on the term limits law. In 1992, he was a 24-year-old Marine stationed in the Middle East. The son of a Baptist preacher in rural Marble Hill (pop. 1,502), he hoped to seek office upon returning stateside. In 2000 -- the year that the full impact of term limits kicked in -- the ambitious young firebrand won a seat in the House. More than half the representatives elected that year were freshmen, and most were Republicans. After nearly 50 years in the wilderness, Republicans had a shot to regain the majority.

Jetton wasn't your typical freshman. He boarded the bus for the ritual freshman state tour with a 100-page document in his hand that he immediately presented to Minority Leader Catherine Hanaway. It was a plan to retake the majority. He forecast which districts were winnable and which weren't. He broke down how much money it would take to win them. And he offered a roadmap for how to do it: emphasize guns and abortion to woo socially conservative Democrats like those who had long supported Sen. Staples, and use tort reform to dry up corporate contributions to Democrats (and eventually, to drain the coffers of trial attorneys). Hanaway, no dummy, recognized native political talent when she saw it. She put Jetton in charge of candidate recruitment and training.

Jetton recognized something very important: The old-line Democrats like Staples were respected in their communities. These were communities in Northeast and Southeast Missouri full of people like Staples: farmers and small businessmen, laborers and tradesmen, mostly descended from the hardscrabble Virginians who had trekked across the hills long ago. They were Democrats because that's what you were if you lived in Virginia before the Civil War. These yellow-dog Democrats coalesced with Democrats from St. Louis and Kansas City to provide durable statewide majorities for most of the 20th century, with Republican strength concentrated in the Bible Belt counties in Southwest Missouri.

The more retrograde the political debate, the more progressives left or never came in the first place. And the more progressives left or stayed away, the more conservative the electorate became, and the more reactionary the debate.

But by 2000, times were changing. As many scholars and journalists have chronicled, the national Democratic Party had, since the mid-1960s, increasingly lost touch with the old-line Democrats, who continued supporting local Democrats but had long since stopped backing them at the national level. Jetton intuitively understood that the way to these men's political hearts was through their gun racks. And he knew that the way to their wives' hearts' was through the local preacher -- that's where the life issue came in. He established a clear partisan cleavage on cultural issues that, until then, had existed only in federal and statewide elections. In just two years, he went from minority-party backbencher to speaker pro tem.

In order to solidify this new cleavage, Jetton needed interest groups like the NRA, Missouri Right to Life (MRL), and the Missouri Family Network. They helped, but their support did not come cheap. The NRA, for instance, first demanded passage of concealed-carry legislation. But that proved insufficient, and the group ultimately spearheaded passage of a so-called "castle law" that even allows drivers to shoot (and kill) anyone who reaches into their vehicle.

MRL wanted to ban the procedure conservatives call partial-birth abortion. Then they wanted parental consent, and worked to make it so cumbersome for abortion clinics to operate that nearly every one in the state had to close. Missouri soon had some of the strictest abortion laws in the nation. Still not satisfied, MRL sought to criminalize scientific research on stem cells.

No hot-button cultural issue escaped attention. Laws prohibiting gay marriage were now deemed insufficient, so Republicans demanded a redundant constitutional amendment (which garnered 72 percent of the vote). It wasn't enough to crack down on undocumented immigrants in the workplace. Republicans demanded a constitutional amendment making English the state's official language, though there was no evidence anyone had ever conducted state business in any other language (until, of course, the day I filibustered that proposed amendment in French).

Presented by

Jeffrey Smith

Jeff Smith is assistant professor of politics and advocacy at the New School’s urban-policy graduate program. He served in the Missouri Senate from 2006 to 2009, is a columnist for City and State, and has written for SalonCNN.com, and National Journal.

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