Buchanan County's decade-long shift from blue to red
Fifth Judicial Associate Circuit Court Judge Keith Marquart was one of the rare Republicans elected to a political position in 1990 in Buchanan County. Now after more than 30 years on the bench, he’s retiring with nearly every elected position in the courthouse filled by a Republican.
“Back in the day when I first started in politics, there were no Republican candidates,” Marquart said. “It was very odd to have a Republican on the ballot. When I filed as a Republican, it was absolutely unheard of.”
For decades, Buchanan County residents overwhelmingly voted for Democratic candidates, both at the local and state levels. From 2002 to 2012, Democrats were elected about three times as often as Republicans.
Buchanan County Western District Commissioner Ron Hook was one of those Democrats in 2008.
“When I started off back in 2008, it was a complete opposite of what it is now,” he said. “Just about every officeholder in the county was Democrat with the exception of some judges. Now it’s totally flipped.”
St. Joseph was a blue-collar manufacturing town with a strong union presence, which meant workers typically leaned to the left.
“Because of the influence that labor had in the Democratic Party, at least the leadership, they felt like that was their home,” said City Councilman Taylor Crouse. “When Barack Obama ran, I remember seeing a lot of Obama signs in working-class yards.”
But slowly the trend started to change. While many residents continued to vote Democrat for local and state offices, the tide was changing in national races. For example, former president Barack Obama barely won in the county in 2008 and then lost in 2012.
“I think that the change has to do with the fact that (the county) has just gotten more conservative and conservatives identify more with the Republican Party,” Marquart said.
But 2016 was the strongest indication that the political affiliation of the county had changed. Not only did former president Donald Trump overwhelmingly win, but so did every Republican in all seven races for statewide positions.
“I think there’s just some major national issues that got people thinking more about, ‘Am I really a Democrat? Am I really a Republican?’” Hook said.
Crouse believes those issues simply came down to what was directly impacting people’s lives.
“The Republican Party is talking about kitchen-table issues that matter to people, the fact that you can’t go to the grocery store and buy more than a dozen items without a $100 bill,” Crouse said. “The Democrats want to talk about social issues, which most of us around here just don’t feel like the federal government or state government has any business being involved in.”
With Buchanan County now firmly a Republican stronghold, it’s been hard for the Democratic party to find people to run for office. On Tuesday, there were about 10 unopposed races on voters’ ballots. For all but one of those offices, the sole candidate was a Republican.
Local politics can also play a role in what ticket a candidate runs on. Chad Gaddie, who ran unopposed as a Republican for Marquart’s seat, lost when he ran eight years ago as a Democrat. When Hook ran in 2008, he said he wasn’t sure which party to represent, as he considers himself a moderate. Marquart said he was a Democrat until he made the then-unpopular switch to the Republican party in 1988.
“When I decided to run as a Republican that was a big decision, that wasn’t something that was made just because one party or the other was better,” Marquart said. “That decision was bucking my own family.”
Buchanan County started to shift from blue to red when Republicans challenged Democrats. If the county were to ever swing back, it starts with more contested races.
“The elections I had with an opponent flushed out the issues a lot better,” Marquart said. “It was a source of a whole lot of public discussion and debate that I think was beneficial to me as well as the community.”
Quinn Ritzdorf can be reached at email@example.com