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Missouri Democrats Are Teaming Up To Try To Break Republicans’ Lock On Rural Areas

Kathy Ellis addresses a public forum on income inequality in Rolla.
Jonathan Ahl | St. Louis Public Radio
Kathy Ellis addresses a public forum on income inequality in Rolla.

ROLLA — In 2016, Donald Trump received 70% or more of the vote in most of Missouri's non-urban counties, continuing a trend of the GOP dominating rural areas. 

A group of 23 Democrats running in those areas is hoping that working together will reverse that tendency.

To Empower All Missourians includes Democrats running for Congress, statewide office and state legislative seats. The goal is to share resources, volunteers and best practices to improve their odds in the November election.

Kathy Ellis, a Democrat from Festus who is making her second attempt at Missouri’s 8th Congressional District seat in the southeast part of the state, is leading the effort.

“Something like this would have been huge the first time I ran,” Ellis said. “It’s very lonely, and there’s not that much financial support. There’s not that many people who are that interested. And so you really need some help from people who have been there.”

The group has developed a unified platform, which Ellis called “a simpler, more concise version of the state party’s platform.”

An online launch of the group resulted in 300 new volunteers signing up to help the candidates. 

“We’re looking at how we can get candidates what they need to know, and what things work and what things don’t,” Ellis said. “And I think it’s going to have a much more educational component.” 

Ellis said the goal is to eventually have the group take on unified fundraising efforts.

But any plan to change the voting patterns of rural residents is an uphill battle, said Bryant Moy, a doctoral candidate at Washington University and co-author of “The Urban-Rural Gulf in American Political Behavior” published in the journal Political Behavior.

“Our research shows regardless of demographics, education level or any other factor, people who live in less densely populated areas that are not close to a major city overwhelmingly vote Republican,” Moy said.

Moy pointed out that most of the congressional districts represented in TEAM haven’t seen a Democrat win office in decades. He also said that while coordination and better campaigns might help a little, bigger shifts in the political landscape are likely necessary to change voting tendencies in rural areas.

“The pandemic and President Trump’s historically low approval ratings could make things different. But it would be a radical change from what we have seen for a long time,” Moy said.

Ellis said creating TEAM is a long-term plan, not just something that is focusing on the 2020 election.

“We want to build something that is sustainable. We might only win a few of the offices we are going for this year, but this is an effort that can pay dividends in the long run,” she said.

Correction - Kathy Ellis is running for Missouri’s 8th Congressional District seat in the southeast part of  the state. The district's location was incorrect in an earlier version of this story.

Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @JonathanAhl

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Copyright 2020 St. Louis Public Radio

Jonathan Ahl reports from the Rolla Bureau for St. Louis Public Radio. His duties also include covering central and southern Missouri for Harvest Public Media. Before coming to St. Louis Public Radio in November of 2018, Jonathan was the General Manager for Tri States Public Radio in Macomb, Illinois. He previously was the News Director at Iowa Public Radio and before that at WCBU in Peoria, Illinois. Jonathan has also held reporting positions in central Illinois for public radio stations. Jonathan is originally from the Chicago area. He has a B.A. in Music Theory and Composition from Western Illinois University and an M.A. in Public Affairs Reporting from the University of Illinois at Springfield. He is an avid long distance runner, semi-professional saxophonist and die-hard Chicago Cubs fan.