A speckled wave of Democratic blue swept across parts of America last week, handing President Barack Obama a second term and tossing a handful of party members into the Senate and House of Representatives.
But the wave didn’t reach the entire nation.
By the time it hit Missouri, it had dwindled to a small pink-purple ripple. At the Kansas border, the waters stilled — the Sunflower State remains deep crimson, perhaps the most conservative state in the nation.
Why would that be?
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The answer can be found in the evolving froth of culture, gender, age, and racial makeup of the rapidly changing 21st-century electorate.
In Virginia, for example, almost 40 percent of the population is either African-American or Latino, compared with just 15 percent in similarly-sized Missouri. Nevadans are 34 percent nonwhite; Kansas, just a bit smaller, is home to a minority population of less than 20 percent.
Virginia and Nevada voted for Obama, while Kansas and Missouri supported Republican Mitt Romney.
Increasingly, Kansas and Missouri are older, whiter, more rural and suburban, and more culturally conservative than Wisconsin, Minnesota, even New Mexico.
Coloradans legalized recreational marijuana; a Missouri petition for a similar vote collapsed for lack of signatures. Three states legalized gay marriage Tuesday; here, it remains explicitly illegal. In fact, in Hutchinson and Salina, voters overwhelming repealed city ordinances granting gays protection from discrimination.
“There are true cultural differences between voters in Kansas and voters in New York or California,” said Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, a man at the spearpoint of the country’s broad social policy debate. “The Founding Fathers wanted it this way. It’s not unhealthy at all. It’s how our country was set up.”
Few politicians on either side of the red-blue divide expect the local political environment to change anytime soon. Democrats in Missouri still will play a significant role in statewide races, they said, although the state appears lost to the party at the presidential level for decades to come.
Kansas is easier to predict. It hasn’t supported a Democrat for president for almost half a century. It could easily wait another 50 years before it flips blue again.
In both states, leading Republicans say, Tuesday’s results won’t lead to any major push for moderation.
The Show-Me state emerges from Tuesday’s election as a bit of a split personality.
Its General Assembly remains rock-solid Republican, now with veto-proof majorities in both chambers and a state House of Representatives with 110 members of the Republican Party — the most in Missouri history.
Six of the state’s eight members in the new U.S. Congress will be Republican. No Republican incumbent faced a serious challenge on the ballot.
That trend, analysts said, is likely to continue and grow. In district-based elections, party identification remains strong, largely because like-minded voters increasingly tend to live in the same areas (“the places where we live are becoming increasingly crowded with people who live, think, and vote like we do,” says a website for “The Big Sort,” a 2008 book that describes the phenomenon.)
A different picture emerges when it comes to statewide officeholders. Four of the six officials, including Gov. Jay Nixon, are Democrats, all elected to four-year terms this week. By the end of this, Nixon’s second term, Democrats will have controlled the governor’s office for 20 of the past 24 years.
Much of the Democrats’ continuing strength is based on an old formula: Battle to a draw in rural areas by using conservative cultural messages (Sen. Claire McCaskill made much of her support for a tough prayer amendment in August), then roll up big margins in St. Louis and Kansas City.
But the Democratic stranglehold on statewide offices could eventually give way, analysts said. Driving the trend: Missouri’s population pattern.
Big swaths of rural Missouri continue to gain population, a major reason why Republican strength has grown rapidly in the General Assembly. The state’s six-fastest growing counties — Christian, Lincoln, Pulaski, St. Charles, Taney and Warren — all went big for Romney in Tuesday’s election.
“All the population growth in the state is occurring in Republican areas. All of it,” said Missouri GOP consultant John Hancock.
While northern Missouri, which also is reliable Republican turf, has lost population in recent years, the fastest-growing counties have more than picked up the slack.
“The demographic changes to me are the most important thing,” said Missouri State University political scientist George Connor. “Missouri is going to remain red. And I don’t think pink. I think we’re going from medium-rare to rare.”
Meanwhile, the state’s Democratic base is increasingly isolated in the two big cities, making it tough for Democrats to gain ground in the General Assembly.
“It’s an issue of concentration,” said longtime Missouri Democratic operative Roy Temple. “There is clearly 50 percent of the vote in Missouri that’s accessible to Democrats. It’s just not distributed across the state equally.”
So far, he said, the state just hasn’t seen the same population trends that have boosted Democrats in other states.
Until the early part of this century, Democrats controlled the General Assembly for decades — often with huge majorities. Those party allegiances dated back to the Civil War, Hancock said.
“It took decades for that behavior to change and to drive itself down the ticket into state legislative races and the county courthouses,” he said.
Those majorities were comprised of conservative Democrats who kept Missouri a low-tax state. So it wasn’t much of a jump to the Republican House and Senate of today.
These days, Republicans head into statewide elections with a slight advantage in numbers, Hancock said. “Democrats produce such large margins out of the cities and ring counties that it creates tremendous pressure (on Republicans) to win everything else substantially.
“It’s a math problem that can work,” Hancock said, “but there’s no margin for error.”
That begins to explain why Republican candidates, such as U.S. Senate contender Todd Akin and gubernatorial nominee Dave Spence, struggled this year. Both made numerous mistakes that allowed Democrats to surge past them.
Republican domination of Kansas politics grew on Election Day when the party increased its hold on the Kansas Legislature. All statewide offices are held by Republicans, as are all four congressional seats.
And the party, led by Gov. Sam Brownback, is expected to use its increasing dominance to approve more changes in tax policy and judicial selection, as well as cultural issues like abortion and school choice.
“The conservative wing of the Republican Party has spent the last 20 years seeking control of all three branches of state government,” said Joe Aistrup, political science professor at Kansas State University. “They have now succeeded. They will govern from the right.”
Republican representatives in Kansas, he said, will not be dissuaded by the Democratic trends in other states. If anything, he said, Republicans are likely to increase pressure for a conservative agenda.
Republican control in the state has been aided by Democrats, who haven’t been able to find serious candidates for most offices for several years. U.S. Reps. Kevin Yoder and Tim Huelskamp, Republican freshmen from Kansas, had no Democratic opponents in their first re-election campaigns.
Some Kansas Democrats complain privately about a lack of help from the national party, which spent time and energy on Obama’s re-election while casting noncompetitive states adrift. But they also say it’s tough to compete against offers of massive tax cuts and spending reductions.
“The Democratic message has been very complicated,” said Kansas Democratic Party director Joan Wagnon. “It’s, ‘Take a look at this, it’s going to cost you’ ” for things such as school funds and roads.
Kansas moderates are endangered for more reasons than weak candidates or bad organization. The rural, socially conservative culture of the state, experts said, makes it increasingly difficult for middle-of-the-road candidates to break through.
Romney won nearly 60 percent of the Kansas vote Tuesday, a bigger margin for the nominee than in Texas or Indiana.
There’s nothing the matter with Kansas from a Republican outlook.
“Kansans generally are not big-government people,” said Alan Cobb of Americans for Prosperity, a leading conservative group. “I think a true conservative Democrat could win in Kansas, but I think it’s a reflection of their party that they don’t have many of those.”
Despite their victories, cracks in the solid conservative Republican bloc could begin to show early next year.
Some lawmakers may take a harder position on sales taxes in Kansas than Brownback would prefer, perhaps provoking a party split. At the same time, pressure is increasing on the party to soften its stand on immigration. Secretary of State Kobach has made tougher immigration laws his decades-long national crusade.
More broadly, Kobach says Kansans who disagree with the state’s tilt are free to leave.
“Americans can vote with their feet,” he said, “and choose a state that reflects their values and the way of life they’d like to enjoy.
“If a person wants to live in a San Francisco lifestyle, they can go there. If they want to live a Kansas lifestyle, they can come here.”