Politics & Policy

Missouri’s Senate Race Wasn’t Supposed to Be This Close

(Reuters photo: Jonathan Ernst)
Roy Blunt’s race to hold his Senate seat in Missouri is making Republicans nervous, but the longtime incumbent is confident he’ll prevail.

‘God,” scoffs one Republican consultant who has worked in Missouri. “Could you create a worse matchup for Roy Blunt?” 

That matchup is Missouri’s surprisingly competitive Senate race, which has some wondering whether Blunt, who is facing the 35-year-old upstart Jason Kander, might be in danger of losing a seat once considered safe for Republicans. Kander, Missouri’s secretary of state, has proven a remarkable political talent, possibly the Democrats’ strongest recruit of the cycle. That helps to explain why Blunt holds a lead of only 3.4 points in the RealClearPolitics average, despite his sizable cash advantage and the state’s increasingly red hue. Blunt is now the rare Republican Senate candidate who is running behind Donald Trump: Last week, a poll found Kander leading Blunt 42 percent to 40 percent while Donald Trump led Hillary Clinton by 13 points.

Blunt’s team dismisses the poll as an outlier, but Democrats evidently like what they’re seeing, and the state is becoming a battleground: The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) last week made a $3.5 million ad buy to help Kander. Republicans have responded in turn: The National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) booked its first ads in the state this cycle, on the heels of a $2.5 million ad buy from the Senate Leadership Fund. Some Republicans now say that Missouri’s result could decide which party controls the Senate. And many grumble at the situation in which they now find themselves: spending millions to shore up a seat that wasn’t even supposed to be in play.

Blunt remains favored, but he is plagued by the realities of the cycle. In a year when voters have exhibited an inclination to reject Washington, D.C., Blunt is the textbook image of a Washington insider. The 66-year-old incumbent has been in Congress for two decades, first in the House, where he served in leadership as the Republican whip, and then in the Senate, a seat he won in 2010. When Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell comes to the microphones to speak to reporters for his weekly press conference, Blunt, as the vice chair of the Senate Republican conference, is part of his retinue.

Kander, at least on paper, is the opposite. His political experience amounts to two terms in the state legislature and one term as secretary of state, a post Blunt held for two terms before winning election to the House. He was a military intelligence office in Afghanistan. His campaign portrays him as an outsider in the mold of other moderate Democrats who vote against their party: He came out against the Iran deal, supports a balanced-budget amendment, and opposes closing the detention center at Guantanamo Bay. “From day one, Jason decided to run for the U.S. Senate because he believes we need a new generation of leadership in Washington,” says Kander communications director Chris Hayden. The contrast is sharp, and it’s hurting Blunt.

That said, Blunt has so far avoided many of the pitfalls that have put some of his colleagues in peril. He has amassed a formidable war chest, and he returns home often, hitting every county in the state at least three times since he was elected to the Senate in 2009. But the contrast is a difficult one for a Republican this year.

Blunt won his Senate seat in the 2010 Republican wave by a 15-point margin that no one expects him to replicate, but he has problems independent of Kander’s strength. His numbers, according to a Republican familiar with the internal polling of the race, are soft: His supporters like him, but their enthusiasm is limited, and many are willing to explore other options. Those numbers make clear that Kander has an opening, if he can capitalize on it.

What’s more, some Republicans gripe that Blunt has left himself wide open to an easy and potent attack from Democrats by having his son Andy, a lobbyist, as his campaign manager. Lobbyists epitomize the D.C. insider game that voters have rejected so thoroughly this cycle. And given how easy it is to paint Blunt with that brush, some Republicans wonder why Blunt would give them a wide target. Already, the DSCC is running an ad attacking Blunt as a creature of Washington, D.C., who has used his position in Congress to enrich himself. “And,” adds one Republican, “it’s a family affair — Blunt’s wife and three kids are all lobbyists.”

Democrats evidently like what they’re seeing, and the state is becoming a battleground.

Missouri has become a hard state to quantify. Until 2004, it was considered not only a swing state but also a bellwether. Every year for a century, with one exception, it gave its electoral votes to the ultimate winner of the presidential contest. Then, in 2008, John McCain won Missouri by just 3,632 votes, though he lost the presidential race. By 2012, the state was largely off the table on the presidential level: Mitt Romney bested President Barack Obama by nine percentage points in Missouri but lost nationally. But at the same time that Romney notched a victory that solidified Missouri’s position as a red-leaning state, Democrats won the governor’s mansion and the Senate seat. Few saw Senator Claire McCaskill’s 16-point victory over Republican representative Todd Akin as a sign of things to come: McCaskill had helped manipulate the GOP Senate primary to get the opponent she wanted, and Akin had imploded shortly before the election, vindicating her efforts.

It’s hard to figure out how to exactly classify Missouri’s political leanings this year. It’s Republican on the presidential level, to be sure, but the surprisingly close Senate race and a governor’s race in which the Democrat is outpolling the Republican make for an odd political dynamic. But what is clear to both Democrats and Republicans is that Missouri voters have no problem splitting their ticket between both parties. 

Kander’s military service lends him credibility on national security, an issue where Republicans often find an edge. In a recent ad, he assembles an AR-15 while blindfolded and speaking directly into the camera about his time in the military, his experience using guns, and his support for background checks, a position for which Blunt has attacked him. The ad made the rounds among political types, earning rave reviews from both sides of the aisle.

Blunt’s team is skeptical of its effectiveness, and his backers have already turned it against Kander, with both Blunt and the National Rifle Association releasing ads that clip Kander’s ad to attack his record on Second Amendment Issues. This, for the most part, is the Republican blueprint for the next 48 days: attach Kander to Clinton, paint him as a liberal, and point to the votes he took in the state legislature that illustrate that.

“What polling tells us is once you tie Jason Kander to Hillary Clinton, he becomes much less appealing,” says one Republican operative familiar with non-public polling of the race.

Blunt is also running testimonial ads in which constituents talk about how he has helped them during his time in the Senate, a positive upshot of his long time in Washington. 

The map of competitive Senate races has shifted and shrunk over the past weeks and months. Colorado and Ohio, once thought competitive, now appear to be done deals, and Florida increasingly looks to moving into that category. There is only so much television real estate in other competitive Senate states such as Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, and Nevada, which are also presidential swing states and therefore inundated with ads. That frees up a fair bit of money to go elsewhere, and Missouri is a ripe target. The polling is tight, and the advertising rates are inexpensive relative to most other competitive states.

#related#The fact that the race remains this tight is notable given that Republican outside groups have outspent Democrats dramatically over the course of the past year. If the poll numbers stay as they are or tighten with this latest influx of spending, there will undoubtedly be an inflow of more cash.

Democrats are excited. This “is the classic dark-horse Senate race,” says Caitlin Legacki, who served as communications director for McCaskill in her 2012 race. It’s a reality that took many people by surprise. But Blunt campaign spokeswoman Burson Snyder shrugs at the idea that this is unexpected.

“Roy Blunt has been saying that in his stump speech for over a year,” she says.

— Alexis Levinson is the senior political reporter for National Review.

Editor’s Note: This piece has been updated since its initial publication

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