Chere Chaney could barely contain herself.
Asked about the prospects of her candidate, Democratic U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, facing off against conservative Republican Todd Akin in November, Chaney rubbed her hands together and gushed, “Oh, yea,
We’re excited to death.”
A member of the Communication Workers of America, Chaney joined legions of Democrats on Wednesday who were re-energized about McCaskill’s chances after months of dispiriting news that the senator was all but toast.
They think Akin — who easily won Tuesday’s GOP Senate primary — is perhaps the only Republican Senate candidate of the three hopefuls that McCaskill could defeat.
Still, Republicans, and even some Democrats, cautioned that the race will be highly competitive and even uphill for the former Jackson County prosector, who trails in the polls in a state that continues to tilt to the right.
McCaskill calls herself the underdog. Her former campaign manager, Richard Martin, acknowledged that Democrats must be cautious.
“This is no time for her to be overconfident or for Democrats to think they’ve been given any kind of gift,” he said. “There’s still work to be done.”
All day Wednesday, signs of exactly what McCaskill is up against surfaced. A group called Crossroads GPS that has ties to Karl Rove, former President George W. Bush’s political director, announced a new $874,000 ad buy in Missouri that accuses McCaskill of raising taxes.
Republicans point out how often McCaskill voted with President Barack Obama, who remains unpopular in Missouri. And they insist that McCaskill had it wrong when she claimed in a campaign stop in Kansas City that Akin was “out of the mainstream of Missouri.”
It’s McCaskill’s who doesn’t get it, they argue, and exhibit one is her backing of the new health care law. “It’s her views that are outside the mainstream,” said Akin spokesman Ryan Hite.
On the first day following the intense, months-long GOP primary fight between Akin, businessman John Brunner and former state treasurer Sarah Steelman, Akin took time off the campaign trail. Hite said the candidate would remain on the sidelines until next week.
McCaskill, however, launched her general-election campaign with a sharp denunciation of Akin that ranged from her opponent’s stands on Medicare, Social Security and the minimum wage, to college loans.
“Today begins an opportunity for Missourians to take a hard look at two very different visions of what our country is and should be,” she said.
Akin wants to privatize Medicare and Social Security, McCaskill noted. He objects to the minimum wage and to federally backed student loans.
“That means if you don’t have the money to send your child to school, your child can’t get a loan to go to school, which means that only the rich kids are going to college,” she said.
Meanwhile, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee released a list of bills that easily passed the House, but which Akin opposed. One was a measure aimed at improving training and education for autism service providers that had the support of 147 Republicans. Akin was one of 24 who voted against it.
But Akin’s camp hurried to reject any attempt to portray him as extreme.
“If she tries to paint us into some far out corner, Missourians will say, ‘Hold on,’ ” Hite said. “She voted us into more debt, more spending and less individual liberty the last six years. I don’t believe Missourians consider that mainstream.”
Any notion that Akin was part of the same wave as other Tea Party conservatives — Christine O’Donnell of Delaware and Sharron Angle of Nevada — who won primaries but then lost general elections, also is wrongheaded, said GOP strategist James Harris, who worked on Steelman’s campaign.
O’Donnell and Angle were political newcomers who struggled to explain their stands on the issues; Akin has served in Congress for six terms, and has been easily re-elected from his suburban St. Louis district.
“Todd knows foreign policy,” Harris said. “He understands national security. He knows economic policies inside and out.”
The race will come down to the economy, and which vision makes more sense to voters, Harris added. “They’ll say of the Obama-McCaskill policy, ‘Hey, that’s not right.’ ”
A poll conducted for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch last month showed all three Republicans leading McCaskill. Akin’s lead of 49-44 percent was the smallest of the three and within the survey’s margin of error.
Still, she’s running in a very different year than 2006, when she won her first term. That was a big Democratic year, and yet McCaskill narrowly won 50-47 percent in her race against Republican Jim Talent.
That national Democratic tide appears to be missing in 2012. But Akin is not well-known outside his 2nd Congressional District, and he spent much of his campaign war chest to win the primary.
That gives McCaskill an opening, political analysts said.
“She can confidently claim the middle ground,” said Kansas City Democratic consultant Steve Glorioso, who has worked for McCaskill. “It’s no longer this anybody-but-Claire. Now voters have to pick between a certified moderate and someone who’s in the far extreme.”
Yet Martin pointed out that Akin will be backed by a legion of conservative supporters who will work to get Republicans to the polls. “That base will be with him,” he said.
The question will be which candidate can best appeal to middle-of-the-road independents. Mitt Romney, who holds a comfortable lead in Missouri, will help Akin with more moderate voters, while Akin will help Romney with conservatives, said GOP consultant Jeff Roe.
“Campaigns are all about incumbents, so this race is all about Claire,” Roe said.
McCaskill will likely try to keep the focus on Akin, observers said, but Akin will likely do just the opposite.
“A whole lot depends on national trends,” said Dave Robertson, a political scientist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. “If Obama’s job approval is up, if people get a little more confident in the economy, that will be a big help to her. But time’s a-wasting on that.”