Identifying and analyzing emerging trends in campaigns and elections.

Can a Weak McCaskill Hold Onto Missouri?

In Senate on August 10, 2012 at 1:45 pm

The Missouri Senate race is shaping up to be one of the most interesting in the country. With the Senate majority hanging in the balance, all of the closest election competitors in the 14 states where campaign action is most furious can legitimately lay claim to the argument that their own campaign can determine which party controls the body in the next Congress. The Show Me State of Missouri is certainly in this category, as first-term incumbent Sen. Claire McCaskill, who may be the weakest of all Democrat candidates standing for re-election, fights for her political life.

Earlier this week, Rep. Todd Akin (R-MO-2) surprised many political pundits by defeating wealthy businessman John Brunner and former state treasurer Sarah Steelman 36-30-29 percent, to capture the Republican Senatorial nomination. Akin rode a strong wave at the end of the campaign, peaking at exactly the right time. After trailing for most of the race, he finished a step ahead of both Brunner and Steelman as the trio almost simultaneously crossed the political finish line.

Interestingly, Akin had help from an unlikely source. McCaskill and her Democratic allies pejoratively repeated their belief that Akin is the most conservative candidate in the Republican field, ironically a message that the congressman himself was also trying to sell to the GOP electorate. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) actually advertised in the Republican primary to that effect, saying Akin is too conservative for the state. It is clear the Democratic leadership and activist organizations, along with McCaskill herself, believe Akin to be the weakest candidate in the Republican field and desire him as their general election opponent. It remains to be seen if their analysis proves correct.

For several decades, Missouri was known as a political bellwether. Now, however, the state seems to be trending more Republican. After 14 statewide races between 2000 and 2008 that were decided by less than two percentage points, with each party winning seven times, John McCain’s razor-thin 2008 victory here and then-Rep. Roy Blunt’s big win in the 2010 Senate contest could be a Missouri realignment harbinger. In fact, in voting for McCain, the state failed to support the winning presidential candidate for only the second time since 1900.

With this backdrop, we enter the 2012 general election campaign. Since Team Obama does not have Missouri high on its target list, there may be less of a presidential presence here than in previous years. The state is a must-win for Republican Mitt Romney, so expect him to be more active here than President Obama. Outside groups are expected to play a major role, as a highly competitive Senate race in what is perceived to be a toss-up campaign will precipitate a great deal of action from many issue perspectives.

But it may be Akin who becomes the beneficiary of the greater outside group spending. McCaskill, who wrapped herself around candidate Barack Obama in 2008 appears to be running away from him in 2012, going so far as to say she won’t even attend the Democratic National Convention. While voting for all of the early Obama initiatives and now trying to create distance between herself and the party’s liberal wing, leftward activist groups may find other places to expend advocacy dollars.

Small business groups, church organizations steamed at the Obama Administration for the health care law that forces them into expenditures that conflict with many of their religious tenets, and the coal industry could become major players in this race, all on Akin’s behalf.

For example, the National Mining Association, through its Count on Coal program, is expected to be highly active in Missouri educating the constituency on the mineral’s importance to daily life. The state ranks sixth nationally in coal usage, as 81 percent of its electrical power is generated from the substance. Count on Coal is taking it to the Obama Administration for what the NMA believes are its destructive energy policies. Regardless of whether they actively enter the Senate race, McCaskill is likely to be put on the defensive and absorb political damage from the coal program’s aggressive contrast effort toward the Obama Administration.

Sen. McCaskill has been polling poorly against all general election configurations. Now that she has Rep. Akin as her November opponent, expect a hard-hitting campaign from both sides. The race is a toss-up, and has to be considered a must-win for the Republicans. It is clearly one of the most important Senate races of the year.

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