With McCaskill de­feat, Mis­souri Democrats have hit rock-bot­tom

The Kansas City Star - - Opinion - BY STEVE KRASKE skraske@kc­star.com

It’s funny how old names can bounce into your head even if you haven’t thought about them for years. For some rea­son af­ter Tues­day’s elec­tion, I was think­ing about the plight of Mis­souri Democrats when the phrase “Death Val­ley Days” danced by.

Read­ers of a cer­tain vin­tage will re­mem­ber that long-run­ning TV West­ern. Truth is, I don’t re­call the pro­gram as much as I flash back to its spon­sor — “Bo­rax,” which was some sort of laun­dry ad­di­tive.

Now why in the world would I be think­ing about “Death Val­ley Days” in con­nec­tion with Mis­souri Democrats? That’s pre­cisely where they are to­day: stranded in Death Val­ley with­out any wa­ter, with­out any help in sight.

It’s al­most as if Tues­day’s re­sults com­plete a ca­reer arc for me. When I ar­rived in Jef­fer­son City in 1988, and in en­su­ing years, Democrats were al­most as dom­i­nant as Re­pub­li­cans are to­day. Claire McCaskill was a state rep­re­sen­ta­tive from Kansas City with a fu­ture as sparkling as one of these fall af­ter­noons we’ve en­joyed.

But look at Mis­souri Democrats to­day. They soon will hold nei­ther U.S. Se­nate seat. Six of the state’s eight U.S. House seats are in GOP hands. Re­pub­li­cans re­tained their su­per­ma­jori­ties in the Gen­eral Assem­bly. And they’ve got all the statewide of­fices, save one.

Mis­souri Democrats are at their nadir.

Around 10 p.m. on elec­tion night, things didn’t even look good for Au­di­tor Nicole Gal­loway, the one Demo­crat in statewide of­fice who sur­vived the on­slaught. She ral­lied when the big-city vote came in. McCaskill wasn’t so for­tu­nate.

When the sen­a­tor vis- ited The Star re­cently, I asked about the fu­ture of the state Demo­cratic Party should she lose. McCaskill hardly blinked. She pointed to the late 1980s when Re­pub­li­cans con­trolled all but one statewide of­fice. Just a few years later, aided by scan­dal, Democrats re­bounded, swoop­ing into the Capi­tol, led by Gov. Mel Car­na­han.

Later in the 1990s, Democrats had it all, oc­cu­py­ing all six statewide posts and dom­i­nat­ing the Gen­eral Assem­bly to boot, al­though Re­pub­li­cans Jack Dan­forth and Kit Bond held both U.S. Se­nate slots. McCaskill’s point: The pen­du­lum is al­ways swing­ing.

Still, the out­look to­day for Mis­souri Democrats could hardly be bleaker.

“This is the most chal­leng­ing mo­ment Mis­souri Democrats have ever faced,” for­mer state party chair­man Roy Tem­ple said.

The road back of­ten hinges on a trans­for­ma­tive per­son­al­ity. Once upon a time in Mis­souri, that per­son was Jack Dan­forth, who won at­tor­ney gen­eral in his 30s and kick-started the Re­pub­li­can re­nais­sance.

Democrats can’t point to a Dan­forth to­day and, be­lieve me, they’re look­ing.

In early 2017, a lawyer named John Gib­son took over the Kansas Demo­cratic Party. He had noth­ing in the tank. No prospects for gov­er­nor. No mem­bers in his state’s con­gres­sional del­e­ga­tion and, as I wrote at the time, barely enough mem­bers in the Leg­is­la­ture to make a dent.

But Gib­son had some­thing to hang onto, and that was a be­lief that the Kansas GOP had tilted too far to the right. Gib­son saw po­ten­tial that few oth­ers could see.

“There’s not a place I’d rather be as a Demo­crat right now,” he told me at the time.

RE­PUB­LI­CANS HOLD ALL THE STATEWIDE OF­FICES, SAVE ONE.

To­day, he’s got a newly elected gov­er­nor and a mem­ber of Congress, and he al­most had two.

No doubt our pol­i­tics ebb and flow. But Mis­souri Re­pub­li­cans are com­ing up on the 20th an­niver­sary of their seizure of the Gen­eral Assem­bly, and there’s no ebb in sight.

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