By Phill Brooks
JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. —
The year’s campaign season has provided a clear demonstration of the declining role of political parties.
For years, political scientists have noted the growing number of voters who identify themselves as independent. As a result, a candidate from the party with the highest identification no longer can count on getting elected just by getting the votes of party loyalists.
While that certainly is true in Missouri, it’s just one part of a broader and more fascinating story in the evolution of political parties.
When I covered my first Missouri statehouse campaigns in 1970, Missouri was solidly Democratic. A Democrat who won the primary for a statewide office virtually was guaranteed election.
“For the past 24 years, a one-party political machine has had a strangle-hold on Missouri,” the Republican candidate for governor, Larry Roos, was quoted in the St. Joseph Gazette shortly before the 1968 election. It was not just a complaint. It was a statement of fact.
While Roos, the supervisor of St. Louis County, went down in defeat, there was one GOP statewide victory that year. The first statewide GOP victor since 1945 was Jack Danforth who captured the attorney general’s office. Danforth was an unlikely political success. He was an Ivy League college graduate. He had practiced law in New York. He never held major political office. But, he became credited with being the father of the modern Missouri Republican Party.
Once in office, he hired fellow young, reform-minded lawyers. They focused on reforming government, ethics and consumer protection. From them came an energy and intensity I have rarely seen since in state government.
From Danforth’s team came the next Republican to win statewide office — Kit Bond. Two years after his election as state auditor in 1970, he was elected governor.
During my first years as a reporter, Danforth and his team defined the Republican Party.
But it never was a unified party. From almost the start, an open split emerged between Danforth’s folks and conservative elements of the Republican Party — a split somewhat akin to the ideological divide we see today with the tea party advocates.
At the same time, Democrats also were splintering from disagreements over the Vietnam War. It reached a head in 1972 from Gov. Warren Hearnes’ continued opposition to anti-war presidential candidates.
I did not realize it at the time, but those were some of the seeds being sown that in future years would help contribute to the decline in power of Missouri’s political parties.
You clearly can see the consequences today. Look how candidates deliberately distance themselves from their own parties.
The GOP candidate for the U.S. Senate, Todd Akin, even campaigned against some of his own party’s leaders by calling on voters to reject the demands of Republican Party bosses who wanted him to drop his campaign.
Both Jay Nixon and Claire McCaskill campaign about not being party-line candidates. Instead, they campaign about reaching across party lines to work with Republicans.
Look at the yard signs for candidates. Fewer and fewer give party identification a prominent display, if any mention at all. Even here in Jefferson City, where you would expect partisan politics to be intense, few of the political yard signs identify party affiliation.
Phill Brooks has been a Missouri statehouse reporter since 1970, making him dean of the statehouse press corps. He is the statehouse correspondent for KMOX Radio, director of MDN and a faculty member of the Missouri School of Journalism. He has covered every governor since the late Warren Hearnes.