Claire McCaskill, elected in 2006’s Democratic wave, is facing a tough fight to keep her seat. But no one yet knows which GOP opponent she’ll square off with in November. Three Republicans — Todd Akin, John Brunner, and Sarah Steelman — are in a tight race to win the nomination in Tuesday’s election.
“It’s in the final turn of a three-way horse race, and anybody could win, and anybody could lose,” says Jeff Roe, a Missouri Republican strategist who is working for a super PAC supporting Steelman’s candidacy.
“I think if it’s a low-turnout election, that’s good for Steelman,” says a Missouri Republican operative. “If it’s a high-turnout election, it’s good for Brunner.” Turnout looks to be high, he adds, based on the number of absentee ballots, as described to him by a couple of county clerks.
A Public Policy Polling poll released late Sunday night showed Brunner leading at 35 percent, with Akin and Steelman following at 30 percent and 25 percent respectively.
The three candidates come from different backgrounds. Akin’s strength is that he is the only candidate who has a conservative record at the federal level, having served as a House member since 2000. “Congressman Akin has actually been there and has taken those votes,” says Ryan Hite, the campaign’s communications director. “He’s stood for what he says he stands for.”
Brunner, who has spent by far the most on the race (more than $6.5 million from his own funds, per his federal filing), is making the case that his business background is an asset. “He’s not a career politician,” says a strategist working for the Brunner campaign. “His experience is not in politics, it’s in the private sector, a place where he has built a business, created jobs, operated budgets, made tough decisions on where to cut back when times were lean. He brings that perspective to the problems that are facing this country.”
Steelman has the advantage of having won a statewide race in Missouri already — she was state treasurer from 2004 to 2008 — and an endorsement from Sarah Palin. Palin filmed an ad for Steelman (“Sarah is an economist who defends our tax dollars like a mama grizzly defends her cubs”) and campaigned for her in Missouri on Friday. So far, Palin has had a string of successes in Senate endorsements this cycle: She backed Ted Cruz in Texas, Richard Mourdock in Indiana, Orrin Hatch in Utah, and surprise winner Deb Fischer in Nebraska.
With no significant policy differences between the three, the race has come down to demographics. “Steelman’s got southwest Missouri; Brunner has built a base in the western part of the state, due to his financial resources,” says Roe, noting that Brunner has set a record for campaign spending in a Missouri primary. “And Akin has a base in St. Louis.” James Harris, a Missouri Republican strategist who is working for the Steelman campaign, sees other demographic differences among the candidates’ supporters: “They have unique niches. Sarah’s getting that rural vote, Todd Akin’s got the homeschooling-Evangelical base, and Brunner has some conservatives, some more establishment types.”
Polls show all three Republican contenders beating McCaskill. A late-July Rasmussen poll found that Steelman and Brunner would beat McCaskill by six points, while Akin led by three points. Akin’s smaller gap might be the reason that McCaskill, who has aired ads against all three Republicans, ran an ad that comes off as more of a boost for Akin than an attack: “Todd Akin calls himself the true conservative, but is he too conservative?” asks the narrator in the ad’s opening.
Brunner has his own negative in the race against McCaskill: The National Republican Senatorial Committee has stressed McCaskill’s failure to pay taxes on a private jet for several years (she has since paid the approximately $320,000 she owed the IRS), but Brunner’s company also failed to pay taxes on a private jet for a couple of months, making it tougher for him to credibly attack her on the matter.
“I think [McCaskill’s] ability to run ahead of the president is probably no more than five points,” says the Republican operative quoted earlier, adding that even this would be on McCaskill’s “best day.” And that simply isn’t enough for McCaskill to cross the finish line: “The president is going to lose Missouri by well in excess of five points.”
— Katrina Trinko is an NRO reporter.