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GOP gains in Missouri over decade can aid Akin

Rural-vote surge, evangelicals key

- The Washington Times - Monday, October 15, 2012

The Republican Party has been so successful at increasing voter turnout in Missouri over the past 10 years or so that Rep. W. Todd Akin still could win his bid for the Senate, even after his stumbles in his race against Democratic incumbent Sen. Claire McCaskill.

Analysts said Republicans have forged deeper roots in Missouri as rural voter turnout has increased, conservative evangelicals have strengthened their presence and formerly conservative Democrats have shifted to the GOP — much as they have in the South.

Those factors bode well not just for Mr. Akin, but also for Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, who consistently has held a lead in the polls there.

"The turnout in these rural counties is enormous compared to what they used to be," said Kenneth Warren, a political science professor and pollster at St. Louis University. "The reason for it is the great efforts by Republicans to turn out the vote in rural areas in particular."

Between the 2000 and 2008 general elections, turnout increased by 43 percent in Taney County and by 32 percent in Greene County, both located in the southwestern region of the state. Taney County is home to the College of the Ozarks, a conservative evangelical school, and Branson, a booming tourist spot that has become known as the "family-friendly Las Vegas."

During the same time period, turnout rose by 27 percent in St. Louis and 25 percent in Kansas City.

Missouri Democrats concede that Republicans have surpassed them in recruiting candidates, raising money and getting their base to the polls.

"I do think the Republicans have done a good job at capturing right-leaning or conservative-leaning moderates," said state Rep. John Rizzo, a co-chairman of the House Democratic Campaign Committee, which tries to elect Democrats to the state legislature. "We just don't have the financial resources the majority party has."

Without the Republican gains during the past decade, it would have been even harder for Mr. Akin to stay afloat in the Senate race after he hobbled his campaign by saying women who are victims of "legitimate rape" are unlikely to become pregnant.

But Missouri has grown steadily more red — at least electorally — since Mr. Akin was elected to Congress in 2000. It elected a Republican-led legislature, gave another House seat to the GOP and voted for Sen. John McCain in 2008 even as Barack Obama was capturing every other swing state.

Mr. Rizzo, the Democratic campaign official, said the GOP is taking advantage of state campaign finance disclosure laws, which Republicans weakened after they took over the state Senate in 2002.

But Republicans point to other factors: a strong evangelical presence in the state and a shift in partisan preferences among rural voters.

While the country as a whole is 26 percent evangelical, evangelicals make up 37 percent of Missouri residents.

"I think they're much more engaged and much more in tune with the election process," said state House Republican Campaign Committee Executive Director Scott Dieckhaus. "I think it's a tremendous strength for Todd Akin."

And Kit Crancer, political director of the Missouri Senate Republican Campaign Committee, said more Missourians are identifying as Republicans as the Democratic Party has grown more liberal.

"I think you see a lot of people who identified themselves previously as Democrats are looking at the Democratic Party today and they don't recognize it," he said. "This was not the party they grew up with, and they identify today with Republicans, and I think that has a lot to do with what you've seen."

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