It should be a good day for Show-Me State Republicans.
Six-term Rep. Todd Akin (R) is expected to announce his Senate candidacy today, and vulnerable Sen. Claire McCaskill (D) is coming off an embarrassing series of missteps.
But privately, top Republicans in the state tell Roll Call that they are not bursting with excitement at the current crop of candidates and see a path to victory for McCaskill despite her weaknesses.
“It’s a less-than-stellar field,” a longtime Republican consultant based in Missouri told Roll Call.
Akin’s expected entry into the race cleared two candidates from the field — Republicans Ann Wagner and Ed Martin opted for House bids instead — but he will still face a primary.
Missouri Treasurer Sarah Steelman has been campaigning since December, and wealthy St. Louis businessman John Brunner is expected to officially enter the ring soon.
Even the Missouri Republican Party’s executive director said the contours of the race were still developing, pointedly telling Roll Call that the field “is not set.”
“There is still the possibility of others showing an interest in the U.S. Senate seat in Missouri,” said Lloyd Smith, executive director of the Missouri GOP.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee considers Missouri a top pickup opportunity as the GOP attempts to win the four seats necessary to retake control of the Senate. Roll Call Politics rates the race a Tossup.
A recent poll showed Akin garnering
29 percent among Republican primary voters, essentially tied with Steelman.
But the GOP consultant said Akin had not yet begun to build grass-roots and campaign infrastructure statewide. Steelman’s campaign has experienced staff turnover and her fundraising had been lackluster.
“If you’re a small-businessman in Columbia, Mo., you don’t have a candidate yet. And if the small-businessman ... who always votes Republican doesn’t have anyone he likes yet, that’s a problem,” the Republican consultant said. “Because if left alone, they’ll go with Claire.”
Though she declared her candidacy in December, Steelman’s original campaign director and communications director are no longer with the campaign. But Roll Call has learned that Florida-based consultant Rick Wilson was brought on by Steelman late last week and plans to move swiftly to bring momentum back to the campaign.
Akin is on much stronger financial footing than Steelman. He raised $459,000 in the first quarter and had almost a million dollars in cash on hand at the end of March. Having represented a suburban area outside St. Louis for more than a decade, he also comes to the race with relatively strong name recognition. Akin is a staunch conservative and is open about his strong Christian faith. GOP sources said Akin is also seen as relatively untested in a rough and personal campaign with a national spotlight.
And then there is Brunner, who told the Associated Press last month that he would contribute some of his personal wealth to the campaign, in addition to fundraising. A political novice, Brunner is the chairman of Vi-Jon Inc., a cosmetics and health care products manufacturer based in Missouri that makes items such as body wash and hand sanitizer. He plans to emphasize his business bona fides and his status as a Washington outsider, according to Brunner consultant John Hancock.
The Republican nominee won’t be known until after the August 2012 primary, but a year and a half before Election Day, Republicans say McCaskill’s weaknesses are obvious. Top among them is her support for President Barack Obama’s stimulus and health care laws. In August 2010, Missouri voters overwhelmingly approved — 71 percent to 29 percent — Proposition C, a symbolic measure that rejected the health care law by denying the government the authority to mandate health insurance.
McCaskill has been a close ally for Obama, who will be at the top of the ballot in 2012. Obama lost the state by 3,903 votes in 2008, but Republicans believe he is less likely to come so close in 2012, and they hope he’ll drag other Democrats down with him. Gov. Jay Nixon (D) will also be on the ballot next fall. A Public Policy Polling automated telephone poll this month found 53 percent of Missouri voters disapproved of the president’s job performance versus 43 percent who approved.
McCaskill has built her reputation on holding people who use government money accountable and promoting transparency in government affairs — she is chairwoman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Contracting Oversight. But her brand was tarnished by revelations that she had billed taxpayers for a political trip on her family’s private plane and, more substantively, had not paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in property taxes on that plane. She later paid back taxes and wrote a check to the government for the improperly billed travel.
But McCaskill also has the strength of incumbency, a reputation as an independent, a substantial war chest ($1.8 million in cash on hand at the end of March) and support from national Democrats who recognize she is vulnerable.
McCaskill allies say concerns about health care and private planes will be distant memories by November 2012.
And Democrats in Missouri say not to underestimate the power of her potent public speaking and campaigning skills.
“She’s the best communicator politician on either side of the aisle in the state of Missouri. That’s where I think Todd Akin and any of the Republicans have some trouble,” said Mike Kelley, a political strategist based in Missouri and the former leader of the state Democratic party.
Whoever her GOP challenger ends up being, the race will likely be very close. In the wave election year of 2006, McCaskill narrowly unseated then-Sen. Jim Talent (R), winning by just more than 48,000 votes.