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Missouri Population Shift Moves Votes From Bellwether to Kansas

Missouri and Kansas share a history of differences, starting with bloody battles over slavery in the 19th century and, in the 20th, a record of the Show-Me state picking presidential winners while its neighbor voted reliably Republican.

The political distinction is blurring and Missouri’s weather-vane status is probably over, political scientists say, as U.S. Census Bureau figures suggest the two states with a sometimes violent past have more in common.

“You can see it with all the growth in southwest Missouri and the suburban and exurban growth,” said Terry Jones, a political scientist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. “We’re leaning Republican, and we won’t be as competitive in presidential races.”

Three of the state’s fastest-growing counties are in heavily Republican southwest Missouri, according to census data. The Democratic bastion of St. Louis, which once entertained thoughts of becoming the nation’s capital, saw its population slide 8.3 percent to 319,294, the lowest level since 1870.

President Barack Obama is only the second president since 1904 to win the White House without taking Missouri. The other was Dwight Eisenhower, in 1956. Republican John McCain beat Obama by 3,903 votes out of 2.9 million cast.

Aging Bellwether

Obama won 53 percent to 46 percent nationwide. That signaled the death of Missouri’s bellwether standing, said Kenneth Warren, a political scientist at Saint Louis University.

“Missouri is now more socially conservative than the rest of the nation,” Warren said, “and it is getting to be a Republican state.”

Missouri’s population grew 7 percent to 5,988,927 in 2010 from 5,595,211 in 2000, according to the census.

Those residents will vote more like Kansas, if not in the same proportions, Warren said. While Kansas has elected Democratic governors -- most recently Kathleen Sebelius, Obama’s secretary of health and human services -- the state last voted for the party’s presidential candidate in 1964, when Lyndon Johnson defeated Republican Barry Goldwater.

Kansas’s population increased 6.1 percent to 2,853,118 in 2010 from 2,688,539 in 2000, the census found. The number of white residents dropped 0.2 percent to 2,230,539 as Hispanics surged 59.4 percent to 300,042.

Meatpacking Draw

While the state is now 78.2 percent non-Hispanic white, Hispanics are a plurality in some counties with large meatpacking facilities that have attracted new immigrant groups.

In Finney County, an 18.1 percent drop in the white, non-Hispanic population left Hispanics with a slight plurality, 17,182 to 17,049. Statewide, Hispanics grew to 10.5 percent from 7 percent of Kansas’s population.

Garden City in Finney County, about five hours southwest of Topeka, is home to two packing plants. Nearby Dodge City is home to four. The factories also employ a large number of Somali refugees, said Laszlo Kulcsar, a professor of sociology at Kansas State University in Manhattan.

In recent years, Kansas has taken a sharp turn to the right, according to Joseph Aistrup, a professor of political science at Kansas State. Voters swept Republican candidates into every major statewide office last year. Democrats now occupy only 33 seats in the 125-seat House of Representatives -- the smallest minority Democrats have had since the 1950s, according to Aistrup.

Kansas and Missouri increasingly share political climates, he said. The national tide favoring the Republican Party “hit Missouri headlong,” with 71 percent of voters passing a constitutional amendment in August banning the government from forcing people to buy health care.

Violent Rivalry

The rivalry between Kansas and Missouri began in the 1850s during the formation of the Kansas territory. Kansas allowed males 21 and older to vote whether it would be free or slave-owning. Many residents of Missouri, a slave-holding state, crossed the border to vote, angering abolitionists, according to Tony Mullis, an adjunct professor at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas.

A group of Missourians raided Lawrence, Kansas, in 1858. John Brown responded by murdering Missourians, setting off a burst of violence that gave rise to the term “Bleeding Kansas.”

“There’s definitely emotions, the spirit of revenge and vengeance,” Mullis said. “Every state went through this debate, but there’s no ‘Bleeding Iowa.’ That’s why, even to this day, there is such passion in the Border War football and basketball games. Just hopefully, no one gets killed.”

Electoral Split

As Kansas and Missouri have leaned more to Republicans, a surge in the minority population of Nebraska helped tilt the state in the other direction in the last presidential election. Nebraska splits its electoral votes based on who wins the popular count in individual congressional districts.

In 2008, Obama captured the electoral vote for the district that includes Omaha -- the first time since the system was changed in 1991. The high voter turnout among blacks in North Omaha made the difference, said Mike Wagner, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Nebraska’s population rose 6.7 percent to 1,826,341 from 1,711,263, according to the census. A growing part of the Nebraska electorate is Hispanic; their numbers increased by 77.3 percent during the decade to now represent 9.2 percent of the state’s population, the census found.

Immigration Debate

The Latino vote is up for grabs between Republicans and Democrats, Wagner said. The outcome of legislation in the Nebraska statehouse will determine whether that changes, he said. Senator Charlie Janssen has proposed an Arizona-style law that would require police to check the immigration status of people suspected of being in the country illegally.

“There’s a real chance Nebraska could become more liberal,” if the legislation passes, Wagner said.

Latinos are central to Nebraska’s future, said Lourdes Gouveia, a professor of sociology and director of the Office of Latino/Latin American Studies of the Great Plains at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

Between 1980 and 2009, Nebraska’s total population grew 14 percent, while the Latino population grew 435 percent, according to a study done by the office. Most of the state’s Hispanics work in meatpacking facilities and manufacturing plants, though more are taking service-sector jobs such as those with roofers and laundromats, Gouveia said.

“Employers, managers and company owners are quite aware of how dependent businesses and the economy of the state are on this supply of labor,” she said, noting that Nebraska has been losing its workforce population through aging and young people moving away.

“The future of the state depends on their children and how well we educate them,” Gouveia said. “Not simply as cheap labor that replenishes their parents but as educated, highly skilled workers.”

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