President Donald Trump might have lost ground with suburban voters during the midterm elections, however, rural voters in Missouri more than made up for it by strongly supporting Trump-backed Republican Josh Hawley, who ousted self-described moderate Democrat Sen. Claire McCaskill on Tuesday.
Voter surveys and election results show McCaskill did well where she needed to in St. Louis, Kansas City and their suburbs as well as in Boone County, home of the University of Missouri’s flagship Columbia campus.
Her support tanked in rural Missouri, despite constant work to court those voters in a state Trump won by nearly 19 percentage points in 2016.
McCaskill’s loss in the small towns of Missouri illustrates an often-overlooked flip side to the growing Democratic national dominance of major cities and the much-discussed inroads of Democrats in the suburbs. Republicans have ramped up their margins in rural America since Trump took office.
Both those trends were on display Tuesday in Missouri. For example, in a House race in the St. Louis suburbs, Republican Rep. Ann Wagner saw her margin of victory this year decline to 4 percentage points from more than 20 points in 2016 and 32 in 2014.
Hawley, however, the state’s attorney general, countered McCaskill’s strength with urban voters by stressing that she no longer represented what he called the values of Missouri. He hammered her as too liberal for the state, noting her vote against tax cuts, and especially her opposition to Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.
McCaskill held more than 50 town halls in mostly in Republican strongholds, and during the campaign she tried to limit her losses in rural areas by noting that she voted with Trump nearly half the time in the Senate. She gave an interview to Fox News, unusual for a Democrat, and decried “crazy Democrats” who harass Republicans in restaurants and other public places.
Rural and small town voters favored Hawley 66 percent to 31 percent, according to AP VoteCast, a wide-ranging survey of the American electorate.
University of Missouri-St. Louis political scientist David Kimball said the state has moved right since McCaskill first won election to the Senate in 2006. Now, at least for statewide races, he said Missouri is “solid red.”
“You can’t say she ignored rural Missouri,” Kimball said. “She tried. She made her pitch. I think many voters just weren’t receptive.”
When McCaskill first won election to the Senate in 2006 — another midterm year — she was able to chip away at Republican strongholds, this year she performed significantly worse in rural Missouri.
An Associated Press analysis of the 2006 and 2018 county-by-county election results shows McCaskill lost ground in every rural county.
In Reynolds County in the state’s southeastern Ozarks region, McCaskill dropped nearly 27 percentage points compared to when she first ran. In 2006, she edged out former Republican rival Sen. Jim Talent with about 53 percent of the vote in the county. This year, she only brought in 27 percent of the vote.
McCaskill’s loss of popularity in rural Missouri demonstrates the growing strength of the Republican Party in a state once considered a presidential bellwether. Republicans control the state Legislature and almost every statewide seat. When McCaskill leaves office, there will be only one Democrat left serving statewide.
Trump capitalized on his strength with rural, working-class, white voters in Missouri by making campaign stops in Cape Girardeau the day before the election and a September rally in Springfield.
McCaskill outperformed Hawley in urban areas, where 67 percent of voters favored her, and in suburban Missouri — 52 percent of voters favored her there, according to AP VoteCast.
She had a good lead with both urban men and women. Among suburbanites, McCaskill won with women —60 percent— while Hawley was modestly favored among men — 53 percent to 44 percent.
She still lost statewide by 6 percentage points.