For most of the summer, U.S. Senate candidates Roy Blunt and Jason Kander have scrambled across Missouri, stopping at fairgrounds and gun stores, union halls and sandwich shops, asking for support wherever they could find a handful of voters.
Labor Day marks the end of that retail campaign.
For the next nine weeks, the two candidates will engage in a wholesale dash to the Election Day finish line — TV ads, phone calls, postcards, social media, news conferences, at least one debate. Millions of dollars and thousands of hours will be spent to sway voters in a Senate race now considered close enough, and significant enough, to draw national attention.
Public polls, and private judgments, suggest Blunt remains the slight favorite. Republicans, Democrats and outside analysts said that the senator has avoided serious missteps in his bid for a second six-year term, and that Missouri remains a conservative state inclined to support the GOP incumbent.
Blunt hasn’t trailed in any publicly available poll this year.
But Democrat Kander, 35, could still pull off the upset, analysts said. He’s run a smart race, has money and remains a generational contrast with Blunt, who’s 66 years old.
And there’s a wild card named Donald Trump.
“Trump is terrible, and Kander is showing himself to be a good campaigner,” a Missouri Republican campaign consultant told The Star.
“It’s a competitive race,” said Larry Sabato, whose Crystal Ball publication this week classified the race as “leans Republican.” “But I think if Kander is to win, he will need a Trump near-collapse.”
Democrats have tried to link Blunt with Trump, pointing to Blunt’s endorsement of the businessman. Republicans have criticized Kander’s endorsement of Hillary Clinton, who is highly unpopular in the state.
Yet most Missourians seem to have separated the Senate race from the top of both parties’ tickets, at least for now. For the next nine weeks, it’s Blunt versus Kander, straight up.
“These elections are a complex melting pot of issues and political actors,” said Robynn Kuhlmann, a political science professor at the University of Central Missouri. “And anxiety.”
Both candidates say they’re ready.
“I like the campaign,” Blunt said. “I’ve got a record to talk about. I’m pleased to talk about it.”
Kander: “I’m very focused on getting my message out, which is we can’t change Washington until we change the people we send there.”
To date, Blunt has focused on familiar GOP themes in his campaign. He promises to repeal the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare, and to fight “regulations” that he says cost jobs in the state.
He’s particularly worried about environmental regulations restricting the use of coal for power.
Before friendly Republican audiences, Blunt emphasizes his work on familiar social issues, such as limiting abortion rights and lifting restrictions on gun ownership. In an August speech at the Frontier Justice gun store in Lee’s Summit, Blunt started his remarks by claiming a strong record on both issues.
“Frankly, on most things anyone here would care about, I’m pretty close to the ‘A’ column,” Blunt told roughly two dozen supporters. Kander, he said, would get a failing grade.
Over the next nine weeks, the Blunt campaign is expected to escalate its criticism of Kander for alleged election irregularities in Missouri, particularly in St. Louis. A Blunt ad explicitly links Kander, the Missouri secretary of state, with ballot snafus in that city.
The allegation angers Kander, who points out that Missouri’s secretary of state has little direct responsibility or authority over local election board decisions.
“He’s so desperate to distort my record, he’s completely willing to lie about it,” Kander said of Blunt. Democrats also point to evidence of voting irregularities during Blunt’s own service as Missouri’s secretary of state.
Between now and Election Day, the Kander campaign is likely to continue its criticism of Blunt’s service in Washington. Blunt served in the U.S. House before his election to the Senate in 2010.
Kander’s commercials link Blunt with family members who are lobbyists in Missouri and Washington.
Democrats have attacked the cost of Blunt’s Washington home, worth more than $1.5 million, and the senator’s occasional practice of seeking public reimbursement for some personal expenses while in Missouri. They also think Blunt has used charter aircraft too often while in Missouri, at taxpayer expense.
In an anti-incumbent, anti-Washington election cycle, the attacks could stick.
Yet Blunt does not appear to face a problem similar to that of Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas, who struggled to explain his infrequent visits to his home state during the 2014 campaign. Blunt has come to back to Missouri repeatedly — rarely failing to notify reporters ahead of time.
Kander says he would fix the Affordable Care Act, not repeal it. He’s also opposed to the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, which he says would hurt American workers.
Blunt voted to fast-track the Trans-Pacific Partnership pact, but in recent days has wobbled on the deal — prompting criticism from Democrats, who see a flip-flop.
Some outsiders think the race will be determined by voters’ views of the two candidates’ personalities and approaches, rather than on any specific issue such as immigration policy or gun rights. And some seem disappointed with the lack of issue discussion in the race.
“What are the plans of the two?” Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat at the end of his second term, said when asked about the race. “I like them, especially Kander. … But elections without issues?”
Federal Election Commission records show that through mid-July, Blunt raised nearly $8.7 million for this 2016 election cycle. Roughly one-third of that amount has come from special interest political action committees, including PACs associated with Hallmark, J.E. Dunn, KCP&L and the Dairy Farmers of America, all of Kansas City.
Las Vegas casino owner Sheldon Adelson has donated to Blunt, as have business owners Charles and David Koch.
Kander has raised $5.4 million. Of that, roughly 9 percent has come from PACs, including Kansas City-based PACs for some labor unions.
But the two campaigns’ fundraising is likely to be a fraction of the cash eventually spent in the race. In 2012, more than $39 million was spent on the Senate race between Claire McCaskill and then-Rep. Todd Akin, including Akin’s competitive primary.
One Nation, an outside group that need not disclose its donors, has spent $3.3 million to date in TV ads supporting Blunt. Other outside groups are expected to invest resources in Missouri if the race remains close.
Most of that spending will go for TV commercials that will soon flood your TV screen. In the week including the Labor Day weekend, Federal Communications Commission records show, Kander purchased nearly $95,000 in Kansas City airtime. He bought 113 ads during that week on WDAF-TV alone.
In the week starting Tuesday, Blunt’s campaign will spend nearly $145,000 on commercials just in the Kansas City market. Blunt will air 107 ads on WDAF.
If all four major Kansas City stations air a similar number of commercials, stations may air more than 7,000 Blunt and Kander ads between now and Election Day, not counting independent advertising, or ads the campaigns might buy on cable TV or lower-rated local stations.
Add to that postcards, radio ads, yard signs, phone banks, social media — few voters will be unaware of the campaign by November. Total spending could reach $40 million.
Polling suggests Kander’s biggest challenge is to introduce himself to the state’s voters. In a Monmouth University poll released in late August, Blunt led 48 percent to 43 percent. The poll’s margin of error was just under five percentage points.
Yet 62 percent of those surveyed said they had “no opinion” about the Democrat. “Kander is less well-known,” Monmouth polling expert Patrick Murray said when the poll was released.
Some Republicans think Kander erred this summer by not aggressively advertising in rural areas, where few voters recognize the candidate’s name. Democrats Jay Nixon and Claire McCaskill won in 2012, they said, because they easily carried the state’s urban areas, Kansas City and St. Louis, while winning rural counties along the Iowa border.
Democrats, though, said they were actually encouraged by the Monmouth poll results. Only 9 percent of voters in the survey had an unfavorable view of Kander, suggesting the Democrat can still narrow the race with Blunt, who had a 28 percent unfavorable rating.
The national picture
For most of the summer, the Missouri Senate race has bubbled under the Top 10 — an important race, but less significant than Senate races in Ohio, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and other states. That remains the case.
Democrats must pick up a net of four seats in November to control the Senate, assuming Hillary Clinton wins the presidency. If Trump wins, Democrats would need five seats.
Most analysts of the national map agree the four- or five-seat Democratic pickup is possible, perhaps likely. But those analyses typically don’t include a Kander victory over Blunt — instead, Democrats are more likely to pick up GOP-held seats in Indiana, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and New Hampshire, with outside chances in Georgia, Arizona and elsewhere.
“It certainly looks like an ideal situation for a Democratic Senate takeover,” Sabato’s Crystal Ball report concluded Thursday. Other surveys have reached similar conclusions.
The shifting map will be important in the Blunt-Kander race, though, even if the outcome doesn’t determine control of the Senate. If candidates in some states seem safe — or in danger — national political groups will shift their spending, either adding more in Missouri or taking money out to defend candidates in other places.
In any case, party control of the Senate, and votes on potential Supreme Court nominees, will be a major talking point in the fall.
“Both the court and the two presidential candidates in many people’s minds make a Republican Senate a bigger priority than it’s ever been before,” Blunt argued last week.
Kander said he will cast votes independent of his party. “Calling balls and strikes,” he said, “ in a way that’s straight up and fair. If my party disagrees, so be it.”
The Trump effect
The top of the ticket may matter, too.
Trump leads Clinton in Missouri by a single point in two recent polls. That’s significantly below Mitt Romney’s 2012 performance in the state.
Yet Blunt’s lead in Missouri — and similar leads by other Republicans in other states — show many Republican and independent voters upset with Trump may be willing to split their tickets and vote for GOP candidates in down-ballot races.
“I don’t know that there’s going to be that much of a Trump effect when it comes to Blunt,” said Kimberly Casey, a political science professor at Northwest Missouri State University.
In fact, some political scientists think there may be a reverse-coattail effect: Republicans may not be able to pull the lever for Trump, they say, but may find it impossible to vote for a Democratic Senate candidate as well.
That could change if the Republican presidential nominee slips further in the polls later this fall, or if the Clinton campaign invests in Missouri to boost turnout and voter registration. A massive Missouri loss for Trump — say, five or six points — could put Kander in the Senate.
At the same time, a Clinton collapse in Missouri could depress Democratic turnout in urban areas, consultants in both parties said. That would hurt Kander’s campaign.
It’s a fierce game of chess, with little margin for error.
“I’m completely focused on doing what’s right for Missouri,” Kander said last week.
“I think I’ve got a record, and people can look at that,” Blunt said. “And if they don’t agree with it, and they think they’d like to have somebody else, that’s what elections are all about.”