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Claire McCaskill’s Mountain: A Tough Climb to Victory

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo

“Traditionally,” one Democratic observer told me recently, “Democrats try to hold down their losses outstate and win big in St. Louis. That doesn’t work any longer. The presidential election is a particular problem. Elections get nationalized, and outstate Missouri is growing, delivering more votes for Republicans.”

If Obama loses Missouri, a likely outcome now, even after the president’s numbers have climbed nationally, McCaskill is unlikely to win. She may get the votes of some who vote against Obama, but not many, possibly a point or even two. But that’s probably a best-case scenario for her.

McCaskill’s prospects would rise, of course, if Republicans were to nominate a weaker general election candidate for president, such as Santorum. But even that might not save her because the kind of suburban Republicans who could not stomach Santorum would quickly return to the GOP column below the presidential race to elect someone who would check Obama during the Democrat’s second term.

With personal issues and a public record that offered effusive early praise for Obama, McCaskill simply has too much baggage. She must try to make her election a referendum on her Republican opponent, but that won’t be easy given the president’s performance, the public’s low opinion of Congress and her own issues.

McCaskill, in fact, is something of an accidental Senator. She was fortunate to face then-Sen. Jim Talent (R) in 2006, President George W. Bush’s second midterm election and a year when many otherwise formidable Republicans lost because of public dissatisfaction with the president’s policy on Iraq.

Talent would have beaten McCaskill in almost any other year, and the Democrat must now face voters in a dramatically different political environment than the one that existed in 2006.

McCaskill is an energetic campaigner and appears frequently on TV and emphasizes her political independence and commitment to political reform. Indeed, a press release from her office last week crowed about new National Journal ratings that showed the Senator to be in the “moderate middle” and bragged about her “strong support for the Keystone XL pipeline” and “work across the aisle to cap federal discretionary spending.”

But Missouri voters are likely to look past those talking points (and McCaskill’s new ad that cites “special interests” attacking her), and polling continues to suggest that McCaskill’s party, and her president, will be an albatross around her neck.

Republican insiders are already counting Missouri as a Senate pickup. It’s hard to argue with their reasoning, which is why I have moved Missouri from a pure tossup to a contest that now tilts Republican.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.

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