Helped by a Republican wave that swept much of the nation Tuesday, Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri fought off a strong challenge to win election to a second term in the U.S. Senate.
With 88 percent percent of precincts reporting, Blunt had 51.3 percent of the vote. Opponent Jason Kander, the current secretary of state and a Democrat, had 44.3 percent.
Blunt’s victory came at the end of an unexpectedly expensive and aggressive race. A year ago, the political community considered Blunt an overwhelming favorite to prevail in the state.
But Kander’s nimble campaign — and millions of dollars in outside spending — turned the race into one of the most-watched contests in the country.
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At the end, though, the race broke decisively in Blunt’s favor, and the Republican Party’s.
Blunt met with his supporters in Springfield, where he began his political career in the 1970s.
“What a great moment for our state,” he told cheering Republicans. “A Republican president, and a Republican Senate, and a Republican House can do things to change this country and focus again on opportunity.”
At the Uptown Theater in Kansas City early Wednesday morning, Kander met with disappointed supporters and conceded the race. He urged them to stay involved in politics. “We don’t get to hang our heads,” he said.
“This is a generation that has an incredible capacity,” he said. “And this generation is not going anywhere.”
The Missouri race was considered one of the most important in the nation, and Blunt’s victory was expected to bolster his party’s chances of controlling the Senate.
Kander was considered one of the strongest Democratic recruits of the election cycle, and the party considered him a key player in its bid to take control of the upper house of Congress. The party needed to pick up at least four seats — assuming a win by Hillary Clinton — or five seats if Donald Trump won.
The hope of picking up those seats dimmed Tuesday night as Democratic candidates lost their bids to unseat Republican incumbents in Wisconsin, North Carolina, Indiana and Florida.
Outside groups spent $46 million on the race by Tuesday afternoon, a record amount. Total spending on the race could reach $75 million once all the bills are in.
That doesn’t count the millions more from other party-led organizations, political action committees, super PACs and so-called “dark money” nonprofits.
Most of the money was spent on television ads for and against the candidates. Commercials dominated state broadcasts in the closing days of the race.
At the same time, the two candidates debated just once, in a remote corner of the state on a Friday afternoon.
Blunt, 66, was seeking a second six-year term in the Senate after serving for 14 years in the U.S. House. He campaigned as a bipartisan problem-solver, while promising to uphold important Republican goals like repealing the Affordable Care Act and making sure Supreme Court nominees are acceptably conservative.
He linked Kander to Clinton and hoped Trump supporters would provide a boost to the campaign.
“People need to think about who’s been listening to them,” Blunt told The Star. “Who the real change agent is at a time of change. I’m the one who’s been arguing for new directions.”
But Blunt’s long experience was a mixed blessing this year, when outsider candidates have thrived and distrust of incumbents has been common. Additionally, Blunt faced questions about the lobbying activities of his wife and children, and his own income as a senator.
Questions were also raised about his relationship with for-profit colleges.
Blunt endorsed Trump, but kept him at arm’s length for most of the campaign. The senator often bristled when asked about the top of the ticket.
That attitude changed in the closing weeks, when polls showed Trump getting more votes in Missouri than Blunt. With just days to go before voters went to the polls, Trump tweeted his endorsement of Blunt, and a campaign photo put the two candidates together.
Blunt also got last-minute help from Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas.
Blunt grew up on a dairy farm in southwest Missouri. In 1972, he was teaching history at a high school in Marshfield when he volunteered for John Ashcroft’s congressional campaign.
Ashcroft campaigned for Blunt in Springfield last week. Earlier, he told The Star that Blunt was a “get ’er done person,” a reference to the the incumbent’s work on several issues before the Congress.
Said U.S. Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, a friend: “We have some members of Congress, if they played football they’d throw for the touchdown every time. But Roy Blunt is the guy who will get you first downs.”
Kander campaigned on his military experience — he famously assembled a military weapon while he was blindfolded in a television ad. He also argued for generational change in Washington.
“Washington’s broken,” Kander told The Star in the days before the election. “We’re not going to change Washington until we change the people we send there, and part of that means a new generation of leadership.”
The Democrat faced charges that he was too closely tied to national Democrats, and has mismanaged the secretary of state’s office. Republicans also claimed Kander’s spouse was once a lobbyist, a suggestion the Kander campaign fiercely denied.
At the end, polls showed both candidates virtually tied. Instead, the Republican wave that boosted Trump also helped Republicans in other Senate races, including those in North Carolina and Florida.