Sen. Claire McCaskill (Mo.) knows exactly where she needs to be positioned. And she has done about as good a job as possible to sell herself to Show-Me State voters as an “independent” Democrat who doesn’t always agree with her party or her president.
But even veteran party operatives agree that the Senator, identified early on as one of the election cycle’s more vulnerable incumbents, remains in a precarious position. More accurately, perhaps, McCaskill looks like a very weak incumbent who will need some help from the top of the ticket to earn a second term.
“Claire has done a good job of trying to establish herself as an independent Democrat. That’s why she is even in the ballgame,” said one Democrat who thinks that she could win if everything falls her way but readily acknowledges that the odds are stacked against her.
McCaskill’s main problem certainly isn’t her opponents.
Rep. Todd Akin, former Missouri Treasurer Sarah Steelman and businessman John Brunner aren’t the kind of top-tier recruits that would normally make an incumbent shudder with dread.
Akin, from northeast Missouri, isn’t well-known outside his Congressional district and may be too conservative even for Missouri Republicans. Brunner, a businessman with no political experience, laid an egg when he announced his candidacy. And Steelman, whose base in reliably Republican and very conservative southwestern Missouri could be important both in the primary and general election, still has to prove herself as both a fundraiser and a campaigner.
Multiple polls show McCaskill running about even with the three Republicans and drawing 38 percent to 43 percent of the vote.
While an inexperienced observer might figure that those numbers show she has an even-money chance of winning a second term, longtime observers will see a very different situation. They will note that after almost six years in office, far less than half of the electorate is inclined to vote for her against largely unknown opponents — a clear sign of McCaskill’s weakness.
In fact, the Senator’s numbers are reminiscent of those of defeated Senators such as Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) and John Sununu (R-N.H.), both of whom showed considerable weakness early on in ballot tests and insisted that the race would change when voters started to focus on the choice. Of course, that never happened.
McCaskill’s albatross right now may well be President Barack Obama, who lost the state very narrowly four years ago and seems primed to lose Missouri by a far larger margin later this year.
Much like other states, the Show-Me State is looking like a starkly polarized battleground, and that isn’t good for Obama, McCaskill or the Democratic Party.
Savvy political observers talk about the increasing importance of “outstate,” a reference to parts of Missouri not in the Kansas City or St. Louis media markets.