Missouri 8th District
Mark Twain might not recognize life on the Mississippi below St. Louis today. The Ozark Mountains to the west flatten out, and the river is hidden behind levees, which ordinarily, except during the terrible flood of 1993, screen small towns and river roads from rows of barges tethered together, full of coal and corn and soybeans. The Mississippi today is an industrial waterway. But it was never really all that romantic. Twain’s steamboats, as he was at pains to point out, were dangerous, noisy contraptions, forever blowing up or getting embedded in roots and branches in the river currents. This is one of the oldest settled parts of the United States. French settlers founded such Missouri towns as Cape Girardeau in the late 1700s. The big influx started a few years after the 1811 earthquake at New Madrid. The spongy Mississippi Valley land is seismically very active, and this was the site of one of the most devastating earthquakes in U.S. history.
2008 Presidential Vote
|Cook Partisan Voting Index|
The southeast quadrant of Missouri—the river valley and the hills to the west, with coal and lead mines, plus the Bootheel that hangs down in the far southeast—has not seemed to change much in half a century. For years, there has been a population outflow from the Bootheel, as machines replaced low-wage farmworkers and crops shifted from cotton to rice, corn, and soybeans. Dairy cattle, pigs, apples, and berries, plus some timber, are among the area’s other products. But this is also home to Missouri’s Lead Belt, a mining region rich in ore minerals such as lead, zinc, copper, silver, and cadmium. Reynolds and Iron counties produce about 80% of the nation’s lead; the Environmental Protection Agency ordered a cleanup of massive piles of lead waste in recent years. An aluminum smelting plant in New Madrid provides more than 1,000 jobs. Still, the only big growth here has been around the retail and medical hub of Cape Girardeau and along Interstate 44. The poverty rate in the Bootheel is the highest in the state. At a point 20 miles south of Rolla, in Phelps County, is Edgar Springs, the home of 190 residents and the population center of the nation, according to the 2000 census. Ten years earlier, that designation was 35 miles to the northeast in Steelville.
The sprawling 8th Congressional District, the largest in Missouri, covers the state’s southeast corner. Its political heritage is mixed. The Bootheel was as solidly Democratic as the Mississippi Valley around Memphis once was, and some mining counties show traces of Democratic sentiment. Cape Girardeau is heavily Republican and an incubator of Republican talent: It is the hometown of Rush Limbaugh and Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder. Once a safely Democratic district, it has been represented since 1980 by Republicans. This was one of the rural areas that trended Republican in the Clinton years. George W. Bush won 63% in 2004, and John McCain won 62% in 2008—including 66% in Cape Girardeau.