Missouri's 2016 Senate contest may never rival the drama of the 2012 campaign, but operatives from both parties expect the Show-Me State to show their respective candidates a good time.
Sen. Roy Blunt’s re-election has been dismissed as a sleeper race compared to this cycle’s more competitive contests in other states. But the Republican is preparing for battle anyway.
Blunt told CQ Roll Call it's "a little early" to worry about rumblings from the Club for Growth or a potential primary challenge from his right ahead of a bid for a second term.
"I'm just doing everything I normally do," Blunt said. "It's just being all over the state, and this year a little more fundraising than I would normally do."
He raised more than $1 million in the first quarter of this year and had more than $3 million in cash on hand as of March 31.
There's a reason Blunt has the advantage. As chairman of the Senate Rules and Administration Committee and with a seat on the powerful Appropriations Committee, the junior senator from Missouri holds a prominent position in Washington’s Republican leadership.
The Club for Growth isn't pleased with Blunt and could decide to look at backing someone else in a primary fight. His 47 percent conservative rating in 2014 is “certainly not an outstanding score” and “would raise concern,” the group's Doug Sachtleben told CQ Roll Call.
Still, don't expect a repeat of 2012, when then-Rep. Todd Akin defeated Washington's preferred candidate, self-funded businessman John Brunner for the GOP nomination. The former congressman has said he’s not going to run for Senate, and one GOP consultant said Blunt is buffered from a rival on his right in part because he has remained in touch with his constituents.
Missouri Republicans right now seem more interested in the crowded open governor’s race.
Republican sources said they are confident about the Senate seat remaining in GOP hands because Blunt is taking the general election so seriously. The race is rated Safe Republican by the Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report/Roll Call.
Democrats are enthusiastic about their candidate, Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander, a 33-year-old veteran of the war in Afghanistan who declared his candidacy in February.
“This election is going to be about whether Missourians are happy with how things are going in Washington,” Kander told CQ Roll Call in an interview Monday. “Most Missourians are ready to give someone else a chance.”
"In the past, Blunt hasn’t had someone to be his exact contrast," said Adrianne Marsh, who managed Sen. Claire McCaskill’s 2012 campaign and is now a Democratic consultant. "People are going to be open to the challenger in a way they haven’t in the past."
After entering the cycle as one of the most vulnerable Democrats, McCaskill defeated Akin by 16 points in an unusual race that saw the Republican's campaign crater following abortion comments that became a national flashpoint. That same year, GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney bested President Barack Obama by nearly 10 points in Missouri.
Blunt’s Washington experience could be used both to help him and attack him, and the same can be said about Kander’s lack of experience. On one hand, the challenger has no federal voting record to defend. On the other, as CQ Roll Call has reported , few senators have been elected as sitting secretaries of state. Blunt once was a secretary of state himself but served 14 years in the House before defeating former Missouri Secretary of State Robin Carnahan by 13 points to win the open Senate seat in 2010.
The congressional map may look solidly Republican, with just two Democrats amid the state's eight House members, but that is thanks to gerrymandering of district lines, said Chris Hayden, a spokesman for the Missouri Democratic Party. Statewide, Democrats have done much better.
Kander pointed out that in the last two presidential election years, Democrats won 9 out of 11 statewide races, including his own race in 2012. "2012 wasn’t just a situation where the person running against Akin did well,” Marsh agreed.
But the state is unlikely to be competitive in 2016. Obama's 2008 campaign invested some funds in attempting to win its 11 Electoral College votes, but had scant presence four years later.
Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton could boost downballot candidates if she is the Democratic nominee. Marsh also sees Kander benefiting from the coattails of Democratic Attorney General Chris Koster, who is running for governor.
From the time he announced his campaign in mid-February to the end of the first quarter, Kander raised $783,000 and he ended the period with $700,000 in cash on hand. “That’s pretty darn good,” Marsh said, noting that McCaskill raised a comparable $1 million in the first quarter of 2011.
Kander sounded confident about the challenge. “I really only have one speed, and that’s generally how I get things done, by going full speed,” he told CQ Roll Call.
With the election 18 months away, sources from both parties say there's still plenty of time for the race to get exciting.
“The Blunt race will coast a little bit more,” a GOP consultant said, “before the gloves come off.”
Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report. Related: Democrat Announces Bid to Challenge Roy Blunt Jason Kander and the Secretary of State Curse Senators Confirm Re-Election Bids for 2016 The 114th: CQ Roll Call's Guide to the New Congress Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call in your inbox or on your iPhone.