For Roy Blunt, it’s the apocalypse, now.
He stands before several hundred Republicans in a small warehouse in Springfield, urging them to send him back to Washington for another six-year term. His voice is strong, urgent. The choice, he says, is clear.
“Religious liberty is at stake. The Second Amendment is at stake. Freedom of speech is at stake,” the incumbent senator says as he paces the stage. “Our rights and liberties are at stake. And they don’t agree with us on these issues. No wonder they’ll say or do anything to try to get (this) seat.”
The crowd responds with a mixture of support and surprise. This isn’t the mild-mannered politician they’ve known around here since the 1970s, when Blunt entered politics as the local county clerk.
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This Roy Blunt, locked in a dead-even race with Democrat Jason Kander, sounds like a tea partier. This Roy Blunt doesn’t just want Springfield’s votes, he needs them.
“I think he’s going to do OK, but it is tight,” says Greene County Republican chairwoman Danette Proctor. “The people are sort of tired of the establishment, and I think that’s hurting him bad.”
A flurry of Missouri polls in the final week show Blunt’s race with Kander is simply too close to predict. Privately, Republicans say polling shows Blunt’s support has firmed up in the last week, but the race is a still within a three-point margin of error.
Turnout will be critical. That’s why Blunt brought in last-minute help for the race: Sen. Ted Cruz endorsed Blunt in Springfield and at a later rally in Joplin, places where the Texan’s anti-government message rings the loudest.
The campaign hopes it will help. Operatives in both parties agree Blunt’s support has softened because of a withering three-month rhetorical assault on his time in office.
Television commercials have hammered Blunt for his family’s lobbying work, his Washington home, even his legal use of aircraft to travel the state. Outside groups have already spent nearly $19 million attacking Blunt in television ads aired across the state.
He bristles at the criticism of his wife and children.
“There’s a reason Jason Kander wants to talk about my family,” he told The Star in an interview Wednesday. “He doesn’t want to talk about any of these issues, and that’s become more and more obvious.”
At the same time, newspaper stories have questioned Blunt’s own ties to lobbyists during his time in the House, his campaign contributions from and relationship with for-profit colleges, and his legal address.
The combination has burdened Blunt with the most difficult of 2016 labels: career politician. In August, a Monmouth University poll found 28 percent of Missourians had an unfavorable view of Blunt. By November, 39 percent of likely voters had a negative view of the senator.
The 66-year old incumbent hears the insider accusation and is now actively pushing back against it.
“I’m the change agent in this election,” he said. “I’m the one who’s been arguing for new directions in the last six years.”
In speeches here and other places in the last week, Blunt offers a familiar conservative, anti-government agenda: oppose Obamacare, protect gun rights, fight against access to abortion. Yet at least some of Blunt’s closing argument revolves around Washington, and his understanding of it.
Blunt tells audiences the Missouri U.S. Senate seat will likely determine which party controls the body under the new president. And the new Senate, Blunt says, may consider up to four Supreme Court nominees in the next four years, a decision he insists should not be left solely in Democratic hands.
Other senators — Cruz among them — have suggested they’ll indefinitely hold up any Hillary Clinton Supreme Court nominee if she defeats Donald Trump next week. Blunt, on the other hand, says new nominees should get hearings and votes, but should still have to pass a filibuster-proof 60-vote threshold for confirmation.
“She has an obligation to nominate people who’ll look at the Constitution and try and determine what the people who wrote it were trying to say,” Blunt said. If not, “she’ll have to come up with another nominee like President Reagan did on more than one occasion.”
Other GOP Senate candidates in tight races have made a similar argument to Blunt’s: a Republican-controlled Senate, they say, is the last defense against a President Hillary Clinton.
But implicit in the argument is a belief that Trump will lose. Trump is expected to win Missouri handily — he leads Blunt in opinion polls — leaving the Senate candidate, at the end, in a ticklish spot: embrace Trump, or keep him at a distance?
In the final hours, he’s straddling the issue. He barely mentions Trump on the stump, but says he’s ready to help if the Republican wins Tuesday.
“A President Trump, a Vice President Pence need people in the Congress they can work with to get things done,” Blunt said.
In Springfield — where Blunt must win convincingly to prevail statewide — his tepid endorsement of Trump may be enough.
“I want (Blunt) in because I don’t want a Democrat in. Sorry,” said Jean Wehr, 75, of Springfield. “If he votes conservative I’ll continue to support him. If he strays, he’s gone.”
Chris Beyer, a 20-year-old from Jefferson City, called Blunt a doer. “He’s a problem solver,” Beyer said. “He’s one of the few leaders in Congress who can actually move legislation through.”
It’s Blunt’s final argument: an insider who can bring change, and a bulwark against a Clinton administration. Tuesday, Missourians will render their verdict.
“People get to decide elections,” Blunt said Wednesday in Springfield. “Now is that week where they’re really thinking about the choice, and why the choice matters.”