JEFFERSON CITY - A stampede, that's what it was.
It started 11 Novembers ago in a polling booth near you. That's where Republican candidates across American experienced an upswing in support so violent that many called it a revolution. The ground in Jefferson City didn't shake like it did in Washington D.C., where a freshman class of Republicans led by House Speaker Newt Gingrich made its presence felt immediately, but it would soon enough.
The elephant herd kept on rolling. Little Dixie, an area in northeast Missouri where Democratic ties stretched back to the Civil War, flipped Republican. Seat by seat each chamber of the General Assembly fell into Republican hands. Then, in November of last year, the Missouri GOP captured the crown jewel, the governor's office, and claimed complete control of the state Capitol for the first time in more than 80 years.
"This is the realigning election I have been working since I was a teenager in the 70s," an exhausted Peter Kinder exclaimed after his tight victory over Democrat Bekki Cook in the lieutenant governor's race. "We have felt that Missouri is a Republican state in the making for more than 20 years and this finally confirms it."
Painting Missouri red wasn't a simple task. The GOP had to adapt to a changing habitat. The elephant had to evolve.
In 1989, Democrats held 22 of the 34 seats in the Missouri Senate, including many from rural districts. When the upper chamber opened its doors this years, their numbers had shrunk by half: 11 seats drawn only from Democratic enclaves.
Their ability to hold onto the Governor's Mansion was the only exception. The late Gov. Mel Carnahan filled the state's top job through much of the 1990s, building his majority through what has become known as the I-70 strategy, dominating in St. Louis, Kansas City and Columbia, three cities linked by the interstate highway, and largely conceding rural votes to Republicans.
Carnahan's successor, Bob Holden, eked out a similar victory over Republican Jim Talent in the wake of Carnahan's death in a plane crash just weeks before the 2000 election. But the Democrats' lease on the mansion came to an end in November when Matt Blunt defeated State Auditor Claire McCaskill to become the state's first Republican governor since John Ashcroft.
The GOP built its success on a platform of classic Republican values with an increased emphasis on conservative positions on abortion, gun control and gay rights. These so-called "wedge issues" helped galvanize candidates grass-roots support and provided a stark contrast to Democratic positions. By pairing that strategy with a series of highly publicized ballot measures the GOP -- led by top-of-the-ticket winners like President George W. Bush and Sen. Kit Bond -- rallied voters to the booths to turn more and more seats in the General Assembly.
A cornerstone of the push was an amendment to the Missouri Constitution that limited a state office holder to eight years of service in each chamber. Voters approved the proposal by a 3-to-1 margin in November 1992 and the groundswell of support gave a crop of young Republican candidates strong leverage against the career politicians who made up much of what was then a Democratic majority.
The effects of term limits are only now being felt. When the Senate opened its doors this year, not one of the senators who held office in 1992 remained. The first year after the limits took effect, 16 senators had more than 15 years of legislative experience. Today, only two have been in the General Assembly that long, and both will soon reach the legislative limit.
Despite the mixed results found by political scientists, supporters continue to voice vigorous support for the caps. But even those who have benefited most from the turnover won't deny a longstanding charge of their most vocal opponents: that the loss of experienced officeholders increases the importance of lobbyists and staff members, behind-the-scenes players who never answer to voters. The voice of expertise and institutional memory is heard less today on the floor of each chamber than it is in the closed backrooms of Capitol offices and lobbying firms.
"The worst thing this state ever did was term limits," said Missouri's AFL-CIO chief Hugh McVey, whose labor organization has long been tied with the Democrats. "People can't find their way around. Being a budget chairman? I don't know how you could learn it in eight years."
Democrats at the Capitol, however, believe the tide is turning. They point to Frank Barnitz' victory last month in a special Senate race in rural south-central Missouri. Republican Sarah Steelman held the seat before she was elected state treasurer in November. Democrats interpret their pro-gun, anti-abortion rights candidate's victory as a vote against Gov. Matt Blunt's highly publicized cuts to social services. They say its a sign their party can still field candidates who rural voters will embrace.
"It's too early to tell," said Marvin Overby, an MU professor of political science. " But the Republicans have won everything that's on the table to win, and as soon as you start making policy you start making enemies."
The Democrats might be right. A leftward shift in balance could be the next stage in natural selection. But the elephants are on top for now, and the ones operating behind the scenes -- crafting policy, twisting arms and wooing voters -- are more important than ever. What follows is a look at the most powerful among them.