Government & Politics

Roy Blunt-Jason Kander Senate race in Missouri now among closest in U.S.

Missouri’s Senate race between Jason Kander and Roy Blunt is now one of the closest in the country, and among the most important.

On Tuesday, the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call said Kander, a Democrat, has run the strongest race in the country for a non-incumbent challenger. The report is the latest suggestion the contest has dramatically tightened, focusing the eyes of the political world on the state.

“I think the race is dead even or maybe even worse for (Republican) Roy Blunt,” said Nathan Gonzales, editor and publisher of the Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report. “Republicans should be concerned about losing the seat.”

The New York Times and the National Journal reported earlier this month that internal polls in both parties showed Kander with a slight edge, and some Democrats claim internal polling shows Kander pulling away.

But GOP operatives have pushed back over the last week, insisting their internal polls show Blunt with a narrow lead. One consultant told The Star that Blunt led Kander by five points in a poll taken in the middle of the last week. Kander has led in only one public poll in the race.

Republicans also point to polling in the 2014 Senate race in Kansas, which showed Sen. Pat Roberts virtually tied with opponent Greg Orman until the final week. Roberts won by 11 points.

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“I fully expect Roy Blunt is going to be re-elected,” Missouri GOP chairman John Hancock said.

But the GOP poll was taken before a videotape surfaced of Donald Trump’s lewd comments during a 2005 television taping. If the popularity of the Republican nominee for president dips dramatically in Missouri, strategists in both parties said, Blunt’s prospects could dim.

That makes the state even more important in November.

Democrats must pick up at least four seats — and capture the White House — to assume majority status in the Senate. Democrats are now counting on Kander to be one of those seats, while Republicans are anxious for political veteran Blunt to protect it.

The popular polling forecast website FiveThirtyEight says Missouri is the fifth most important state in determining which party will control the Senate in 2017.

For months, the race between Blunt and Kander has nestled quietly in the second tier of 2016 Senate campaigns. It was thought to be less interesting and less important than races in Ohio, New Hampshire, Florida and North Carolina.

But the tightening of the race, and its importance to control of the Senate, has drawn the attention of strategists and partisans in both parties. Millions of dollars in outside ad spending are now pouring into Missouri. Blunt and Kander are campaigning across the state, and met for their first and so far only debate Sept. 30 in Branson.

With one month to go, here’s a look at the state of the Blunt-Kander Senate race.

Ads, themes

Blunt has largely stayed with bipartisan themes in his own campaign ads, insisting he’s been able to work with Democrats in Washington. One ad claims Blunt has worked to provide federal funding for the Special Olympics program.

Independent groups buying commercials to support Blunt haven’t been quite as subdued. Those ads have blistered Kander for his connections to Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and his alleged support for her policy goals.

Blunt has joined in. Kander “wants to expand Obamacare, give amnesty to illegal immigrants, and raise energy taxes,” Blunt says in one commercial, referring to the “Clinton-Kander agenda.”

Kander, Missouri’s secretary of state, supports expanding Medicaid in Missouri. Blunt’s reference to an “energy tax” refers to a program called cap-and-trade, a long discarded pollution reduction tool that neither Kander nor Clinton has proposed.

Blunt says linking Kander to Clinton is fair and accurate. “She is deeply unpopular in our state,” Blunt said. “And he is right in line with her, and Missourians need to understand that.”

Kander said he supports Clinton and voted for her in the primary. But he rejects the view that his opinions are always congruent with hers, or that voters should connect the two in November.

“Senator Blunt’s entire approach here is to pretend I’ve served in Congress, when I haven’t,” Kander said. “I think it’s pretty telling that after 20 years in Washington, Senator Blunt has a campaign that is about me.”

For his part, Kander has emphasized an outsider approach and his military background. He argued for background checks for some gun purchases while assembling a rifle blindfolded, daring Blunt to accomplish the same task. The ad drew national attention.

Additionally, outsiders supporting Kander — and Kander’s own ads — have been sharply personal, accusing Blunt and his family of enriching themselves during Blunt’s two decades in public office. “Roy Blunt’s family is filled with lobbyists,” says one ad from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Blunt’s wife is a lobbyist, and his children Matt, Andy, and Amy are registered lobbyists.

“Today, Senator Blunt lives in a $1.6 million mansion in Washington,” Kander said during the Branson debate. “He’s not the same person.”

Blunt is concerned with the personal nature of Kander’s campaign.

“He doesn’t want Missourians to know what he’s actually for,” Blunt said. “He’s way more focused on my family than how his policies would affect Missouri families.”

The Trump factor

What Kander has not done is make an issue of Blunt’s support for Trump. That may be in part because some blue-collar Trump voters might consider Kander for the Senate race, and he doesn’t want to make them angry.

In a red state like Missouri, Kander will need crossover votes if he is to prevail.

“Donald Trump’s not qualified to be president,” Kander said. “At the same time, I’ve also pointed out that Donald Trump’s entire message is that people like Senator Blunt are the problem.”

But Democrats’ reluctance to link Blunt and Trump may be changing. In a news release Monday, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee accused Blunt of “hiding” from Trump, and compared the businessman with former Rep. Todd Akin, whose comments about rape doomed his 2012 Senate campaign.

Blunt says he’ll resist any effort to pair him with Trump, even though he has endorsed the nominee and did not back away from that endorsement over the weekend, when the “Access Hollywood” story broke.

“Missouri voters have a lot of experience looking at the kinds of things I’m for, and the way I conduct myself as a public official,” he said. “Pretty hard to confuse me with Donald Trump.”

Blunt’s challenge is as ticklish as Kander’s. He cannot anger Trump supporters in the state, but if the presidential candidate continues to stumble, Blunt’s campaign could be in jeopardy.

Mitt Romney won Missouri by nine points in 2012. Sen. Claire McCaskill, the Democrat, beat Akin by 15 points — proving Missourians can split a ticket if they want to.

In recent weeks Blunt has tried to pick up on Trump’s message of change, while keeping his rhetorical distance from Trump.

“Even if Donald Trump and I want to change things in our country that desperately need to be changed,” Blunt said, “Donald Trump is a newer quantity to Missouri voters than I am.”

The money race

The Federal Election Commission said Tuesday that outside spending in the race is now close to $13.7 million. That’s still far short of spending in Ohio, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania, but nearing the outside spending in the competitive North Carolina Senate contest.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee has spent $1.5 million on Blunt’s behalf, while its Democratic counterpart has invested $1.6 million in Missouri.

Outside groups supporting Blunt, or opposing Kander, include Americans for Prosperity, the National Rifle Association’s political action committee and the Senate Leadership Fund, which is allied with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. The fund has spent roughly $5.8 million protecting Blunt’s seat.

Kander’s allies include End Citizens United, Majority Forward and VoteVets.

Combined, groups helping Kander have spent $5.04 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, while Blunt backers have invested $8.66 million on his behalf.

Virtually all of that money is going to television commercials. Political ads now dominate news broadcasts in major cities and rural areas in the state.

Third-quarter spending and fundraising reports for both candidates are due Saturday, although the campaigns may release the information earlier. In July, Blunt reported raising roughly $8.7 million and spending $4.3 million. Kander raised $6.4 million and spent $2.7 million.

Dave Helling: 816-234-4656, @dhellingkc

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