Missouri Governor Mike Parson waves as he concludes the State of the State address in Jefferson City, Missouri. Parson is seeking to keep his seat. Democratic state Auditor Nicole Galloway wants to replace him. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson, File)

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A few years ago when Missouri’s falling population dribbled one whole congressional district down the drain, Republicans didn’t waste much time gerrymandering a popular Democratic member of Congress, Russ Carnahan of St. Louis, out of a constituency.

Some might say it was payback (or fear) for the fact that Carnahan’s father Mel, former U.S. representative and governor of Missouri was so highly thought of that he won election to the U.S. Senate posthumously, after being killed in an airplane crash, over incumbent Republican John Ashcroft.

Ashcroft, another former governor, later went on to be attorney general in the George W. Bush administration.

The Carnahan legend only serves to prove that while the state of rural Missouri is reliably red to the point that the Missouri General Assembly holds a comfortable, unbreakable Republican cushion, it’s still possible for statewide measures and candidates on the left side of the ballot to win. 

Case in point is Missourians’ approval of a ballot initiative reforming the way districts are drawn (no more funny zig-zag lines and districts that look like parts of a jigsaw puzzle), placing strict reforms on political contributions too. Known most simply as Clean Missouri, it received broad statewide support much of which came from the same urban areas that elected Carnahan to the Senate.

Conservatives in the state legislature, determined to convince Missouri voters that they went wrong, have placed their own initiative on the ballot this year to reform the reformers and make clean Missouri politically dirty again. To keep from turning back the clock on election reform, voters who approved Clean Missouri the first time must vote again. This time down instead of up.

In rare instances Show Me State voters have been known to slap the hands of politicians who insist on swimming upstream of public opinion, with rare, but not unheard of Democratic victories.

Coincidentally or not, the 2014 pro-concentrated corporate ag Freedom to Farm Amendment 1 ballot initiative to the state constitution was predicted to pass by a landslide. Instead, it nearly failed to pass when woke voters in blue urban areas turned thumbs down in that 2014 election. Strong support from commercial ag groups and ballot language that failed to mention the potential harm to the environment, local control of communities, and fair market competition obscured the true meaning of Amendment One.

After all, who wouldn’t vote in favor of freedom and farming?

Even so, it barely passed with 0.12% majority out of 1 million votes cast—fewer than 2,500 votes statewide. Voters in Kansas City, Columbia, Springfield, and St Louis nearly turned the tables.

But the most recent example of the weakening voter demographic in rural Missouri is the favorable Missouri August primary vote when those same blue Missouri cities carried the plan to expand Medicaid coverage. Newly appointed Governor Parson used his authority to place the initiative on the August primary ballot to avoid the bigger voter turnout in November. That appears to have backfired. Regardless, the legislative/executive response to Clean Missouri May mean it’ll be up to voters again in 2022 to save Medicaid from another of the Republican majority’s reverse ballot initiatives. Or maybe they’ll just drag their feet.

For now, Medicaid expansion is mandated by the voters to be fully implemented in 2021. Governor Parson said he intends to implement Medicaid expansion but has declined to name the number he’ll plug into his January budget. He made the claim that more Medicaid spending could take money away from education. That’s not surprising because the conservative majority is well known for holding public education hostage for just about anything. 

One Republican state senator commented that increasing Medicaid coverage would result in rural school consolidations and education funding shortages. That’s not a requirement of the law, but a condition majority legislators choose to impose. Most of the expansion would be paid for with Federal dollars, and in some states, it results in a net gain.   

Why do shrinking rural Missouri communities view so many issues so differently than their urban cousins? Certainly, rural areas are less well-served when it comes to health care. Rural hospitals struggle with staffing. Country cousins seeking medical care face two hour road trips to a blue area where populations are growing and healthcare sits at the cutting edge instead of on the edge of a precipice.  

It’s widely expected that Medicare expansion will help forestall more hospital closures. But not a single rural Missouri county supported it. Since 2014, at least nine rural Missouri hospitals have closed along with eight acute care hospitals. 

That’s one reason why the 2020 census is so important in states like Missouri where recording the ever-expanding exodus from aging rural Missouri could make a difference in electing state leaders who represent the growing majority. 

Failing to acknowledge that fact by redrawing state and congressional districts in a fair and transparent way won’t immediately affect the outcome of statewide ballot measures or a presidential election, but it will serve to keep in place continued backward leaning state government and congressional delegations, that among other things, persist in choking public K-thru-12 and secondary education funding. Just like healthcare, those are things that rural Missourians struggle to maintain.

These are the issues that highlight Missouri’s election divide.

Other than the attempt to roll back voter mandated election reforms, the most notable statewide vote will be between Mike Parson, the former sheriff, state representative, state senator, Lt Governor and governor on the one hand, and State Auditor Nicole Galloway. 

Parson became governor when his predecessor, scandal-plagued Governor Eric Greitens was forced from office. Galloway, who had never held statewide office before, became a state Auditor after being appointed by Governor Jay Nixon. Events leading up to that are a story unto themselves. That’s because Galloway’s appointment came when the elected, competent, and (somewhat) unbiased Auditor Tom Schweich committed suicide after being embarrassed and smeared publicly by members of his own party.

Galloway successfully won re-election in 2018 to become the only elected Democratic statewide officeholder. Lately she’s said she is the only candidate for governor who can be relied upon to fully enact Medicaid expansion (and budget adequate funding for education).

Mike Parson has hewed close to the Missouri Republican Party line (anti-abortion, anti-welfare, anti-Obama Care, law and order, pro-big business) that has successfully kept him and so many others in the majority. He’s also following another favorite of state Republicans by withholding hundreds of millions of dollars from statewide public education funding.

Missouri state Auditor Nicole Galloway speaks at a news conference in Jefferson City, Missouri. Galloway is one of just two statewide-elected Democrats in Missouri. (AP Photo/David A. Lieb, File)

Contrasts between 65-year-old Parson, and Galloway, the married 38-year-old mother of three boys, will be as distinct as any Missouri has ever seen. Parson opposed Medicaid expansion in Missouri. He has resisted many of the actions governors of more progressive states have adopted to slow the spread of Covid-19.  Missouri is now experiencing a growing infection rate just as funding deprived schools are due to reopen.

Parson is a strong supporter of President Trump.

Nationally, virus fighting generational Democrat Governor Mario Cuomo of New York was just elected unanimously to be president of the 55 member non-partisan National Governors Association. That means Parson voted for Cuomo.

Sometimes you have to go along to get along, but not necessarily within Missouri’s own borders.

In the Missouri Ozarks where conservatism nearly grows on hardwood trees and rocks like moss, it’s easy to see support for Trump and Parson. Cruisers and yachts big enough to float the ocean travel the same Lake of the Ozarks waterways as small fishing boats and smaller family motorboats. Those little boats are routinely pushed to the side of the channel as big boats flying Trump flags, ridden by boisterous passengers on holiday, create wakes big enough to swamp their tiniest neighbors and erode community lake shores.

That’s what this year’s election will be about; Whether or not wealthy people with higher position and more money should be able to push the rest of us aside.

Ironically many of those being pushed aside live in red Missouri. And legislation limiting the size of boats allowed to cruise the Lake has never gotten past our Republican majority.

Richard Oswald is a fourth-generation farmer from Langdon, Missouri.