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Talent’s Exit Opens Floodgates for Tea Party in Missouri

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It’s off to the races in Missouri, as Republicans are considering Senate bids to challenge first-term Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill.

Blunt easily won the primary against state Sen. Chuck Purgason and was victorious in the general election, but some tea partyers still won’t support him publicly. Sara Dickson, an activist who volunteered on behalf of now-Rep. Vicky Hartzler (R-Mo.), wouldn’t tell Roll Call whether she voted for Blunt. Dickson would only say that she “didn’t agree with Roy 100 percent of the time.” 

Democrats are hoping to leverage Republican division for McCaskill’s gain in a repeat of their 2010 strategy trying to exploit intraparty fights. Last year, tea-party-affiliated candidates defeated Republicans preferred by the Washington establishment, upending those races and ultimately costing the GOP several victories.

The remaining potential candidates are trying to sort out among themselves who might be the strongest candidate to face McCaskill in 2012. It’s a tight-knit Missouri Republican crowd. In some cases these potential candidates are either friends or have worked in similar circles, and it’s likely they are taking cues from one another before making final decisions on the Senate race.

McCaskill is one of the most vulnerable Senators up for re-election in 2012, having defeated Talent with just 49.6 percent of the vote in a great year for Democrats. McCaskill’s office declined to comment for this story, and her year-end fundraising totals, due Monday night, were not available at press time.

Former state Treasurer Sarah Steelman last year was the first Republican to announce her candidacy. She initially started running for Senate in 2010 but earned goodwill when she stepped aside for Blunt. Like Martin, Steelman framed her candidacy in a way that would appeal to the tea party, talking about the need to shrink the size of government.

Yet Martin said he’s “not entirely comfortable with some of her public positions” when she was a state legislator, pointing to her support from labor unions and her opposition to tort reform. 

At least three more Republicans are debating whether to join the race: Reps. Sam Graves and Jo Ann Emerson and former Missouri GOP Chairwoman Ann Wagner, who in January lost a bid to be chairwoman of the Republican National Committee. 

Wagner’s credentials could irk tea partyers, given she has served as RNC co-chairwoman, President George W. Bush’s ambassador to Luxembourg and chairwoman of Blunt’s Senate campaign.

All three have been coy about their plans, but Graves said he would make a decision this week. A SurveyUSA poll partially released by Axiom Strategies last week showed Graves to be the strongest candidate against McCaskill.

Another factor affecting the Senate race: Graves now chairs the Small Business Committee, and Emerson is in charge of a subcommittee on the powerful Appropriations Committee.

In the meantime McCaskill shouldn’t breathe easy. Roll Call Politics rates this race a Tossup.

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