Thursday, August 31, 2006

Missouri U.S. Senate Race

Race of the Day

August 31, 2006
68 Days Until Election Day

Missouri U.S. Senate

Status: Republican Incumbent
2004 Presidential Result: Red State (Midwest)

Outlook: Leans Republican

The Show Me State is seeing one of the premier political showdowns of Campaign 2006.

The general election has in effect been underway for months as neither nominee faced any sort of a credible primary challenge. Democrat State Auditor Claire McCaskill is challenging freshman Republican Senator Jim Talent and the polls between the two have been extremely tight with neither candidate being shown ahead beyond the margin of error. The most recent poll from Rasmussen Reports shows a bit of a shift in Talent’s favor from a small three-point deficit to a small two-point lead.

Neither candidate is much of a stranger to Missouri voters. McCaskill is running for her third different statewide office in the last three general election cycles. Two years ago, she lost a fairly close race as the Democrat nominee for Governor, after having defeated the incumbent in a highly contested Democrat primary. There is talk that some Democrat friends of the Governor she defeated have long memories and are not providing as much financial support to McCaskill as they could be. The fact that McCaskill is seeking higher office for the second time after a reelection as Auditor could lead to the perception that she is overly ambitious and too focused on looking for a promotion instead of tending to her job, but she appears to be the strongest possible candidate the Democrats could have nominated in the state for Senate this year.

For his part, Talent also lost a close Gubernatorial election in 2000, but two years later, the then former Congressman, came back and won a special election to the U.S. Senate, narrowly defeating Democrat incumbent Jean Carnahan. The fact that Talent was able to defeat Carnahan, a figure of much sympathy and affection, who had been appointed to the seat two years earlier after the tragic deaths of her husband and son in an airplane is a testament to both Talent’s past political acumen and the general nature of Missouri politics which leans in favor of Republicans. Since being elected to the Senate though, Talent’s profile within the state fizzled out a bit though leaving him in an extremely tough fight for reelection four years later.

One of the major issues that will shape this race is that of embryonic stem cell research funding. A ballot initiative will appear before the voters this fall and it is expected to pass. McCaskill is in favor of the measure, while Talent has had a bit of an evolving position, but one that tends to be in opposition. It is an extremely difficult tight rope for Talent to walk as he risks alienating his core constituency of conservatives or turning off moderate swing voters who could make the difference in the race as well. If not for this one issue, and the appearance of flip-flopping, Talent would probably be considered a more solid favorite at this point.

The parts of Missouri that have been trending the most Republican have been the rural areas and small towns outside of the larger St. Louis and Kansas City markets. After losing her race for Governor, McCaskill has been trying to appeal to the more rural parts of the state but her position on the stem cell research matter could complicate that strategy. A George Will column published today makes mention that since she can already be expected to do well in the St. Louis and Kansas City areas, her position could hurt among the more culturally conservative voters in the other parts of the state, who would then be more likely to continue to vote Republican. The race for Senate could very well come down to which type of voters is more motivated and organized on Election Day.

While Missouri as a whole, is not overwhelmingly Republican, it does have a tilt towards that direction. Some pundits have observed that the success of former Governor Mel Carnahan in winning statewide office, both in life, and in death, may have artificially inflated the totals of other Democrats in the state and given the party a little more optimism than may be warranted.

Still though, this race between Talent and McCaskill is going to be on the key battleground battles down the homestretch. McCaskill definitely has the opportunity to take this seat from Talent, but it will not be an easy task. Talent has a significant money advantage and can be expected to take to the airwaves with numerous spots defining McCaskill as a liberal who would be out of touch with the values of many Missourians. If polls in the next few weeks show Talent building on what might be a slight lead, Democrats may decide to put more focus on other races instead, as there were times in the 2000 and 2004 Presidential elections, when the party thought Missouri was winnable, only to eventually move their resources elsewhere.

When all is said and done, Talent’s first Senate reelection may mirror the experiences of his senior Republican colleague Kit Bond. Every six years, at least until his most recent reelection, Bond was considered as being very vulnerable, only to always manage to win with 53 percent of the vote on Election Day. If Talent receives 53 percent this November, that might surpass current expectations.

A case can be made for classifying this race as a tossup, and if the election were held today, it might be one, but as fall approaches, I think it is probably best to consider the recent electoral history within the state and Talent’s money edge and thus, I side with the professionals at Congressional Quarterly, who also classify this race as Leans Republican.

Talent campaign link:

2006 Senate races predicted thus far: 9 D, 5 R
Post-election Senate balance of power predicted thus far: 36 D, 45 R