A few months ago, it looked as if Republican Sen. Roy Blunt would have an easy time winning a second term.
But the combination of a viable Democratic challenger and a chaotic presidential primary that’s poised to put Donald Trump at the top of the GOP ticket could make Missouri’s U.S. Senate race more competitive than anyone had thought.
This year’s wildly unpredictable presidential election has created the possibility that Blunt will have to have to distance himself from his party’s standard bearer in order to defeat Democrat Jason Kander, say longtime Missouri political observers.
“It was one of the seats people saw as an outside chance of being competitive,” said Peverill Squire, a political science professor at the University of Missouri. “The odds are better now.”
The altered landscape means Missouri might have a more decisive role in determining which party controls the Senate next year. And Kander is optimistic about his chances: “I expect it’s going to be a very close race in Missouri,” he said in an interview.
Republicans currently have 54 Senate seats in Washington, a majority they just gained two years ago. But they are defending 24 seats this year, including Blunt’s.
Democrats have 46 seats, including two independents. They would need to pick up only five to retake the majority. The nonpartisan Cook Political Report rates four of those races – Florida, Illinois, New Hampshire and Wisconsin – as “toss-ups.”
Missouri, currently rated by Cook as “likely Republican,” could tip the balance. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is bullish it can.
“There are opportunities this year,” said Lauren Passalacqua, a spokeswoman for the committee. “Missouri is one of the places where we can expand the map.”
Republicans currently have 54 Senate seats, a majority they just gained two years ago. But they are defending 24 seats this year, including Roy Blunt’s.
Democrats think they have a shot with Kander, a 34-year-old veteran of the war in Afghanistan who was elected Missouri secretary of state in 2012.
That’s an office Blunt himself held from 1984 to 1993. He then served seven terms in the House of Representatives before being elected to the Senate in 2010.
“He’s in a good spot for an incumbent in Missouri,” James Harris, a Republican political consultant, said of Blunt. “He’s got a fair bit of resources.”
This year, however, the same anti-Washington mood that’s propelled Trump and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz to the front of the Republican presidential pack might prove challenging to Blunt, who, as vice chairman of the Republican Conference, is a member of the Senate leadership.
Trump and Cruz have harnessed voters’ frustration by running against Washington, leaving veteran Republicans such as Blunt in an awkward spot.
Still, Blunt, 66, has clear advantages in incumbency, fundraising and name recognition.
Tate O’Connor, a spokesman for Blunt’s campaign, said the senator had visited every county in Missouri, “and his conservative message is resonating with voters.”
“No one works harder for Missourians every day than Roy Blunt,” O’Connor said.
$9 million Amount raised by Blunt’s campaign as of Dec. 31
Jennifer Duffy, senior editor of the Cook Political Report, said she was watching the race very closely but hadn’t seen enough evidence to rate it as more competitive.
“They’re throwing things at Blunt really hard,” she said. “I also know Blunt runs really good campaigns.”
Still, Duffy said, any Republican campaign manager this year shouldn’t take any chances. “I would operate under the assumption that Trump will hurt,” she said. “Don’t wait and see.”
Blunt has not explicitly endorsed either Trump or Cruz. Ahead of last week’s Republican presidential primary in the state, he steered clear of both his party’s leading candidates.
Trump edged Cruz by a bit more than 1,700 votes in unofficial results. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton edged out Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in the Democratic presidential primary.
Although he has endorsed Clinton, Kander said he understood the frustration voters felt. “I don’t think Donald Trump on the ballot hurts me at all,” Kander said. “Some of them will vote for me, too.”
I don’t think there’s anything in our recent history that even comes close to this.
Peverill Squire, a political science professor at the University of Missouri
Clinton has a “great shot” to win Missouri, he added.
That would buck a trend in recent years where Democrats still win statewide races in Missouri but lose at the presidential level. The state hasn’t voted for a Democrat for president since Bill Clinton in 1996.
“We’ve gone Republican at the presidential level,” said Daniel Ponder, a political science professor at Drury University, “but it’s not a lock statewide.”
Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill ousted Republican Sen. Jim Talent in 2006 and won re-election in 2012. Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon and Attorney General Chris Koster won in 2008 and 2012, even when the state’s voters backed Republicans John McCain and Mitt Romney for president.
Blunt’s fundraising numbers might be a sign that he’s taking Kander seriously.
As of Dec. 31, the most recent Federal Election Commission numbers available, Blunt had raised more than $9 million to Kander’s $3.2 million. Blunt spent $12 million to beat then-Missouri Secretary of State Robin Carnahan in 2010.
Two Republican Senate incumbents whose races are rated as toss-ups, Illinois’ Mark Kirk and Wisconsin’s Ron Johnson, had also raised more than $9 million as of Dec. 31.
Kander is likely to do well in the urban cores of Kansas City and St. Louis, and he might attract some swing voters in the suburban counties at each end of the state. But conservative southern Missouri is Blunt’s home turf. To win statewide, Kander will have to narrow the margin there.
“If you look at the Democrats who’ve been successful,” Harris said, “they’ve done that.”
We’ve gone Republican at the presidential level, but it’s not a lock statewide.
Daniel Ponder, a political science professor at Drury University
Still, with more than half a year to go until November, there are lots of unknown factors that could push the race in one direction or the other.
Republicans face the prospect of a contested convention, where neither Trump nor Cruz has secured enough delegates to win the nomination.
If Trump is the nominee, some Republicans have floated the idea of an independent challenger who could split the vote in November. Or Trump could drive Democrats to turn out, hurting Republicans down the ballot, including Blunt.
“From an incumbent’s perspective,” Squire said, “unknowns are very worrisome.”
Kander, though, is taking on an experienced lawmaker with a deep war chest. And Trump could not only drive Republican turnout higher, he could also pick off disaffected Democrats who are frustrated with both parties or unenthusiastic about Clinton.
Clinton will need to mobilize her voters to give Kander a boost where he needs it.
“I don’t think there’s anything in our recent history that even comes close to this,” Squire said.
Show me the winners
Missouri Democrats who have won statewide, and when
Sen. Claire McCaskill, 2006 and 2012
Gov. Jay Nixon, 2008 and 2012
Attorney General Chris Koster, 2008 and 2012
Secretary of State Robin Carnahan, 2004 and 2008
Secretary of State Jason Kander, 2012