“It hit me like a ton of bricks,” Kathy Ellis says of a sign she saw at the 2017 Women’s March in Washington D.C. The sign, which read, “I have a terminal illness. What’s going to happen to me if they take away my healthcare?” is what Ellis credits for spurring her to run for Congress.
Ellis is just finishing an evening of “group therapy” at a small restaurant in Southern Missouri when I catch her on the phone. Missouri’s 8th Congressional District has not had a Democrat in Congress since 1981, but Ellis is rebranding what it means to be a Democrat in the Show Me State. Her group meets regularly to build community and strategise.
While Ellis is making inroads in the deeply red area and receiving bipartisan support, she remembers a time when Republican candidates stood no chance of winning in her district. “It was just unheard of,” Kathy says, “People who were Republicans would run as Democrats so they could get elected.”
Geographically, Missouri is almost the dead centre of the continental United States. And for decades, the state’s politics have mirrored that: Missouri’s state legislature has had an almost equal bipartisan split for decades. The state, as one writer noted in 2017, could once be seen as a “microcosm of the country,” a place where conservative and liberal ideals could successfully coexist. But, after a series of sweeping Republican wins since 2012, Missouri’s reputation as a force of moderation has been fully replaced by a vision of just what the far-right can accomplish when they control the legislature.
The national headlines the state has received over the past few years highlight a growing hostility towards people of colour, women and LGBTQ Missourians. In 2017 alone, the legislature passed laws attacking abortion rights and access (SB 5 led to the closure of all but one of Missouri’s abortion clinic); weakening discrimination laws (SB 43, which makes it nearly impossible to prove discrimination on the basis of race, gender or sexual identity, leading the NAACP to issue its first ever travel warning for the state of Missouri); and failed, once again, to pass the Missouri Non-Discrimination Act,which would give LGBTQ identifying Missourians legal protections against discrimination.
Perhaps most disheartening for Missouri progressives though is that they may lose incumbent Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill. Polls show McCaskill and Republican Josh Hawley in a very close race; the most recent polls indicate that Hawley is leading by three points. As Missouri’s sole Democrat in the Senate since 2012, losing McCaskill’s seat would be disastrous for the party.
Enter Ellis, along with Renee Hoagenson, who is running for Missouri’s 4th Congressional district.
As native Missourians, these two progressive women are keenly aware of Missouri’s complex political climate. Hoagenson and Ellis hope to shake up political binaries and take back their state from an increasingly powerful GOP.
With Missouri’s only Democratic incumbent at risk, and an overhaul of the Democratic party imperative, Ellis and Hoagenson realise that the stakes for the state’s future have never been higher. The stark realities of both the state and federal legislatures make the November 6 midterms crucial.
At 62 years old, Kathy Ellis is a social worker with over 30 years of experience. She’s worked in halfway houses, in addiction treatment, in child welfare and she’s written federal grants. If elected, she would be the second openly lesbian woman in Congress. She lives with her wife Ann in Jefferson County, a county where her family has resided for six generations. When I ask Ellis about what Republicans in her district think of the current GOP, she laughs as she responds, “I think right now there are some [Republicans] saying ‘Wait a minute, we got sold a bill of goods!’ and others are still holding on that if there’s a pile of shit there’s a pony around somewhere.”
Ellis’s district is completely rural and the 11th poorest congressional district in the country — a fact that she says shocks even her fellow Missourians. “You drive through the district and you see the burned down houses from meth explosions. You see just this total chaos that is in so many rural areas and despair. This is America,” Ellis says of the poverty in her district.
So where did Democrats go wrong? Ellis believes that the Democratic party stopped listening and failed to back candidates that rural Missourians could believe in. Couple this with the strategising and millions of dollars poured into GOP campaigns and it’s no surprise that Missouri’s rural population slowly stopped voting blue.
Despite what Ellis sees as growing disillusionment with the Republican party, Ellis’ district is still solidly Republican, according to FiveThirtyEight, which gives her a less than one out of 100 chance of winning the race.
But whether or not she wins this time around, Ellis sees her campaign as imperative for re-building the party from the ground up. Ellis says she has had conversations with hundreds of voters about why they stopped believing in the Democratic party. The issues that voters have expressed most concern about are the issues that Ellis has built her platform on – Medicare for all, fighting the opioid crisis, fully funding public schools, and funding infrastructure that creates high paying jobs.
“We have to keep talking to people. We have to keep building coalitions,” she says. "We have to keep building community.”
On the other side of the Missouri River and a few counties north, Renee Hoagenson is campaigning in Missouri’s 4th Congressional district. Like Ellis’s district, the 4th is rural and solidly Republican, save for Columbia, the bustling college town where Hoagenson has lived with her three children for decades. The 51-year-old is fighting for ethics reform and fixing the foundations for families – living wages, fully funded public schools, and healthcare for all.
But, unlike Ellis’s district, Hoagenson’s district was Democratic from 1935 until 2012. Since the Republican takeover in 2012 though, the Democratic party has been demonised as elitist– the enemy of small business owners, farmers, and the working class. As a small business owner herself, Hoagenson is committed to changing this narrative as she promises to advocate for small business owners and for ethics reform, an issue that she says 75% of voters support. In fact, she notes that she is backed by many Trump voters who just don’t see themselves represented by the Republican incumbent Vicky Hartzler.
Hartzler was the co-sponsor of the hugely unpopular Right to Work bill, a bill that would give workers union benefits without paying union dues. The bill, which was backed by corporations in an attempt to undermine labor unions, received so much backlash that Missourians voted the bill down via ballot initiative 67 to 32.
Hoagenson says Republican voters in her district are waking up to the fact that their party no longer represents them. She continues, “It seems almost like there is this sports team mentality. It doesn’t really matter what your team does as long as that’s your brand. I really wish that people would start considering issues more independently of party.”
Like Hoagenson, Sean McElwee, cofounder of Data for Progress, a progressive think-tank, believes the party still has potential to take back the state. “I don’t think that Democrats should write off the idea that they can remain competitive in the state over a long period of time,” McElwee says. He credits Missouri’s 2016 shift towards conservatism to both President Donald Trump’s ability to move white evangelicals into the Republican column and rural voters’ shift away from the Democrat party.
So, how can progressives win in the state? McElwee advocates for issue based campaigns that represent the needs of rural voters. He cites the recent overturn of Missouri’s Right to Work law as an example of this. “That’s a very impressive accomplishment and it does suggest that there is reason to believe that the right campaign running the right campaign and the right policies could actually be very successful in Missouri.”
The GOP has taken over Missouri, but progressive women like Ellis and Hoagenson are strategizing to win it back through building platforms that give rural voters a future to believe in. If the GOP takeover of Missouri is to be reversed, campaigns like Ellis’s and Hoagenson’s are right on the money. “We’re not hicks,” Ellis says. “It’s all percolating right here in the Midwest.”
With an aggressively far-right legislature and the seat of Missouri’s only Democrat at risk, the future of Missouri Democrats hinges on Nov. 6. Regardless of the election’s outcome though, the political landscape is shifting. In June, a special election elected Democrat Lauren Arthur to the state senate. Arthur won the election by nearly 20 points in a district where Donald Trump won by five points just two years earlier. Ellis and Hoagenson hope for similar victories and Arthur’s win indicates that anything is possible.
Win, lose, or draw, women like Ellis, Hoagenson and Lauren Arthur prove that even in rural Missouri, Democrats will continue to build power, recruit candidates, and fundraise for a decades-long battle to break through what Kathy Ellis calls “the red wall.” The fight doesn’t end in November.