A political showdown in the Show-Me State
It's one cut of suburbia, but it sure felt like two. President George W. Bush turned up at a $2,000-a-plate fundraiser for Republican Sen. Jim Talent here two weeks ago, and guests nibbled on citrus-glazed chicken breast and shrimp risotto. A few miles away, Claire McCaskill, the state auditor and Democratic challenger for Talent's Senate seat, sponsored a $5-a-plate spaghetti dinner benefiting the Missouri National Guard. She raised just over $2,000 total.
Most election years, such scenes highlight the advantages of incumbency. Not this time. McCaskill fashions herself as a moderate, and a recent poll put her ahead of Talent by 6 points. That could mean a lot, especially since Missouri--a blend of urban and rural, North and South--is considered a bellwether of national trends. "Missouri is the testing ground for the Democratic strategy," says Nathan Gonzales of the Rothenberg Political Report. If the message catches fire here, there's a good chance Democrats will capture the Senate in November.
By most accounts, Talent, 49, should be a lock. The University of Chicago law school grad has a squeaky-clean reputation, and he's delivered. He championed legislation that could double ethanol production in the next six years. (Corn, used to make the clean-burning fuel, is Missouri's second-largest crop.) The state's raging methamphetamine problem "just broke my heart," Talent says, so he crafted get-tough legislation that put cold medicines used to make the drug behind pharmacy counters. Two years ago, it looked like Missouri just might turn red, with Bush edging John Kerry by 7 points. But residents of the Show-Me State can be notoriously fickle. Democrat Jean Carnahan was appointed to the Senate seat after her dead husband--killed in a plane crash just prior to the election--beat Republican incumbent John Ashcroft in 2000. Two years later, Talent bested Carnahan. President Bush, riding a surge of support after 9/11, helped: He flew in five times to barnstorm with Talent.
Buyer's remorse. Today, things couldn't be more different. Bush's approval rating here is 39 percent, and 54 percent of Missourians say the Iraq war was a mistake. Republican Gov. Matt Blunt, who scaled back social programs to deal with a $1.1 billion budget deficit, isn't Mr. Popularity either. McCaskill harps on Talent's record of voting 94 percent of the time with Bush, and she digs even harder into Blunt, who defeated her by about 80,000 votes in her 2004 bid for governor. "There is serious and significant buyer's remorse around here, and we're gonna ride it," McCaskill said to hoots and hollers at the opening of a new campaign office recently.
Expect the battle to play out largely in rural parts of the state. Talent's low-key demeanor and strong religious background gave him a 15-point advantage over Carnahan in outstate Missouri in 2002. McCaskill, a pro-abortion-rights candidate, has already taken four rural speaking tours around the state in the Big Blue, her giant campaign RV, and she's planning three more this summer. On the stump, McCaskill emphasizes her roots in small-town Houston, Mo., and sometimes brings her mother, 77-year-old Betty Anne. "I made a mistake in the governor's campaign," she says, "in thinking if we did well in Kansas City and St. Louis we could get it done."
McCaskill embraces some conservative policies: She opposes the moderate Senate immigration bill and is for adding an amendment to the Constitution banning flag burning. Still, Talent has visited all of Missouri's 114 counties during his term, and he says he doubts McCaskill will be able to make inroads there. "I just don't think Claire's views," he said recently, "reflect the commonsense, conservative values of Missouri."
But there will be other factors. Likely November ballot initiatives on raising the minimum wage to $6.50 and amending the state constitution to allow more stem-cell research are expected to boost Democratic turnout. And Talent has already raised $8.3 million, about three times McCaskill's funds. That's the sort of advantage incumbents often have. But it's not clear it will be enough to carry the day. Not this year, anyway.
This story appears in the July 17, 2006 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.