Missouri’s hazy political landscape cleared Monday for at least one party.
U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill’s decision to forgo the 2016 governor’s race — and to declare a “very likely” Senate re-election campaign in 2018 — gives Democrats a relatively clear horizon for the next two election cycles, party members said.
They now will focus on fundraising and support for Attorney General Chris Koster’s campaign for governor and pencil in their 2018 Senate nominee.
“It’s helpful,” said state party Chairman Roy Temple. “We have survived primaries. We have survived bitter fights. But if you can avoid them, it’s always preferable.”
Republicans spoke more cautiously. They agreed that McCaskill’s decisions give the GOP firmer targets for now, but circumstances and candidates can change before Missouri voters go to the polls.
“Who knows where we’re going to be in 13 months?” asked Matt Wills, the executive director of the state Republican Party. “I’m not a big fan of reading the tea leaves until the tea leaves have been brewed.”
McCaskill’s decision on the governor’s race was revealed Monday morning in an interview on KCUR-FM.
“It was a tough decision in some ways, but in other ways it was really simple,” McCaskill told Steve Kraske, the host of “Up To Date” and a Star columnist. “I am convinced that where I can have the biggest impact is to remain in the United States Senate.”
McCaskill had been looking at the governor’s race for several months. She sought the office before, losing in 2004 to Republican Matt Blunt.
Supporters said she had never lost her enthusiasm for the state’s top executive job, but they also said McCaskill enjoys the Senate and did not relish the prospect of a grueling statewide campaign in 2016.
She downplayed that explanation Monday.
“People were saying I would be the underdog for governor,” she said. “That’s not what scared me away. I like being the underdog.”
Stu Rothenberg, a nationally known campaign analyst, had another explanation for the choice.
“She enjoys the Senate and the national exposure that she has received over the years,” he said. “How many times would she be on (MSNBC’s) ‘Morning Joe’ if she were the governor of Missouri?”
McCaskill said her decision was firm and not based on private polling, a claim that prompted some Republicans to roll their eyes. They say that in increasingly conservative Missouri, McCaskill would not have been the favorite in the 2016 governor’s race.
“She’s going to have trouble even getting re-elected as a senator,” said Charles Moran, a political science professor at Rockhurst University. “She’s so tied to Obama. She was an early supporter of his. She supported the Affordable Care Act. She’s been an advocate of what he stands for.”
George Connor, a political science professor at Missouri State University, said that McCaskill, a former Jackson County prosecutor, probably concluded that her chances on a statewide ballot would be better once Barack Obama’s presidency is a more distant memory.
“Despite what anybody says, she is in a weaker position in Missouri,” Connor wrote in an email. “The state is becoming redder both ideologically and demographically. … She could use the extra couple of years to distance herself from the party and, more importantly, President Obama.”
Koster, now the overwhelming favorite to win the 2016 Democratic nomination for governor, issued a statement applauding McCaskill’s centrist views.
“Claire McCaskill is the heart and soul of the Democratic Party in Missouri, and her commitment to progress for our state is unsurpassed,” the statement said.
The Republican field is more crowded and was somewhat quieter Monday.
State Auditor Tom Schweich declined to comment on McCaskill’s decision — but promised an announcement of his own plans for the governor’s race by Valentine’s Day.
Former Missouri House Speaker Catherine Hanaway, who has announced her candidacy, said in a statement she was not surprised by McCaskill’s announcement.
“In 2016, Missourians will have a stark choice between failed policies of old and new economic reform,” Hanaway said.
Republican businessman John Brunner is reportedly also interested in running for governor.
McCaskill’s announcement Monday caught many in Missouri by surprise. Political operatives streamed the radio program on computers, piping the interview into offices across the state. Speculative tweets rocketed back and forth for an hour or more.
The senator said she reached her decision over the holidays. She downplayed any role gender might have played in her decision. Missouri has never had a female governor.
“It felt wrong to turn away from my seat in the United States Senate toward another job just because it would check a box that I was the first woman governor,” she said. “That’s not a good reason.”
McCaskill said she planned to become more deeply involved in an ongoing Missouri issue — ethics reform.
“We are the only state in the union that allows unlimited gifts and contributions from lobbyists,” she said. She accused retired St. Louis businessman and political activist Rex Sinquefield of using campaign contributions to buy the state’s government.
“Catherine Hanaway can’t salt her meat without asking Rex Sinquefield if it’s OK,” McCaskill said. Sinquefield gave Hanaway’s campaign $850,000 last year.
Later in the interview Monday, McCaskill said a campaign for re-election to the Senate in 2018 is very likely. Several Republicans, including U.S. Reps. Sam Graves and Ann Wagner, are considered possible opponents for McCaskill.
While that election is more than three years away, organizing and fundraising are likely to accelerate soon.
McCaskill’s primary Senate campaign committee reported a cash balance of just $136,172 at the end of last September. McCaskill spent nearly $19 million in winning a second Senate term against former U.S. Rep. Todd Akin in 2012.
The Star’s Jason Hancock contributed to this report.