Democrats Pin Senate Hopes on Missouri Win
National Democrats, confident Missouri’s Senate race is winnable, are investing new money in the contest, hoping to make the conservative "Show Me" State part of their path to retaking the upper chamber.
The increased attention to Missouri comes as Democrats have pulled money out of Senate races in the perennial swing states of Florida and Ohio after polls have consistently shown Sens. Marco Rubio and Rob Portman outpacing their Democratic challengers.
Democrats’ goal of flipping the Senate this year could hinge on their success in red-leaning states such as Missouri -- where Democratic Secretary of State Jason Kander is running against GOP Sen. Roy Blunt.
Democrats have argued for months that some red states would be competitive for them this cycle, and their Senate campaign committee last week invested $3.5 million in Missouri and nearly $7 million in North Carolina.
In Missouri, Kander has received rave reviews for a television ad in which the 35-year-old Army veteran, blindfolded, assembles a rifle while talking about his military service and his support for increased background checks. His campaign also touted a new poll that showed him winning the race by 2 points -- the first one he’s led this cycle. (Blunt still leads by more than 3 percentage points in the RCP average, and many Republicans and some Democrats discounted the poll showing Kander ahead).
Many Republicans concede Kander is running an effective race but believe Blunt is in a strong position heading into the fall. Many also argue that the new Democratic investments in Missouri are simply an admission the Florida and Ohio Senate races are increasingly out of reach, and that Democrats needed to re-invest the money in new states to stay competitive in as many as possible.
Democrats -- while not conceding Florida and Ohio – believe that putting Missouri on the map opens opportunities for them to win back a majority.
“Is Missouri on the same level as Pennsylvania on the likeliness of flipping? No, it’s not there right now, but the fact that it’s in play really widens our path,” said one Senate Democratic strategist.
Republicans currently hold a four-seat advantage in the Senate, but Democrats are expected to pick up GOP-held seats in Illinois and Wisconsin.
Some Republican groups are investing heavily to back Blunt and say they’re expecting the race to be competitive to the end. Senate Leadership Fund, an outside group with ties to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, is spending $2.5 million on ads in the state, and the National Rifle Association has spent nearly $1 million backing Blunt and attacking Kander. One Republican strategist said he thought Blunt would win, but that it was “frustrating that it’s reached this point -- that national Republicans are having to spend money in a race like this.”
Kander’s campaign argues that despite the new national attention to the race, the fundamentals haven’t changed. Since he announced in early 2015, Kander has made the quintessential challenger argument -- that he represents a new generation and that change is needed in Washington. Democrats have relentlessly attacked Blunt as a D.C. insider who’s been in Washington for decades.
“The narrative hasn’t changed,” said Chris Hayden, a spokesman for Kander. “The race is unlike a lot of other ones that have felt they need to make this [election] about Trump or the national environment. We haven’t changed our message.”
Democrats also argue Kander can win in a more conservative state like Missouri because he’s not a down-the-line Democratic vote, especially when it comes to foreign policy. Kander opposed the Iran nuclear deal and opposes closing Guantanamo Bay, two top priorities of the Obama administration.
Hayden said Kander would benefit as both sides boost advertising there. “The more people learn about Jason, the more they like him,” he said.
Republicans, however, push back on the notion that Kander can represent a conservative-leaning state. Burson Snyder, a spokeswoman for Blunt, said Democrats were trying the same strategies they used six years ago when Blunt defeated his Democratic opponent by double digits -- though it was a mid-term election and a strong Republican year nationwide.
“The national Democrats who are desperate for another vote for Hillary Clinton are coming into Missouri in an attempt to rescue Jason Kander,” Snyder said in an email. “This is the same national Democratic playbook they tried to use in Missouri in 2010, when they tried to prop up a left-wing candidate with a record completely out of step with Missouri values and create a narrative that it is a winnable race.”
Sen. Roger Wicker, chairman of Republicans’ Senate campaign arm, referred to Kander’s gun ad and said while it might have been well produced, its message wouldn’t win over pro-Second Amendment voters.
“Attractive and young and vigorous as Mr. Kander may be, he is just far to the left of most Missourians,” Wicker told RealClearPolitics. “I will admit he can assemble a gun blindfolded. But what does it have to do with being an effective right-of-center senator for the state of Missouri?”
Jeff Roe, a veteran Republican strategist working with the Blunt campaign, said the ad was “clever,” but that it might backfire because it reminds voters that Kander supports more gun control measures and will likely keep the NRA interested in spending in the race.
“He picked the one issue he’s probably the worst on and decided to make it the centerpiece of his campaign,” Roe said. “He has an ‘F’ rating from the NRA. Nobody that is a sportsman or likes the NRA is going to vote for Jason Kander.”
But Democrats say his military credentials and way of framing the issue appeals to even strong Second Amendment supporters.
“He didn’t have to shoot it, he didn’t have to blow anything up … And by the way, he also said he’s for background checks,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo. “It makes it an incredibly powerful ad for him."
Missouri represents a more difficult state for Democrats because Kander can’t count on any air support from the top of the ticket. While Clinton’s campaign is advertising and campaigning in North Carolina, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania, it hasn’t spent time or money in Missouri. And Blunt isn’t seeing the drag from the top of the ticket that some other Republicans are dealing with -- Trump is up 7.7 percentage points in the RCP average, while Blunt leads by 3.4 percentage points.
Blunt’s campaign thinks it can benefit from linking Kander to Clinton, whose support has consistently been at or below 40 percent in the state. Kander isn’t widely known, and Blunt’s campaign is currently running a “Missouri can’t risk Clinton/Kander” ad, trying to pair the two while his name ID is still relatively low.
Democrats, on the other hand, point out that in a year that has favored outsiders -- most notably Trump -- Blunt is the ultimate GOP insider, and Kander represents the new blood. They’ve pushed that argument heavily, hoping to attract some swing voters who might support Trump.
“The argument you're making against Roy Blunt cuts across party lines and aims to discredit him in a more specific way by pointing out that he's a Washington insider who is too closely tied with lobbyists and special interests,” said one Senate Democratic strategist. “This race is going to be about Roy Blunt and that record as a D.C. insider -- more so than anything else -- and that benefits Jason Kander.”
Still, Missouri will be difficult for Democrats to win. While they argue Kander is a prized recruit this year, the state is far more conservative than other Senate battlegrounds, and it’s not a swing state in the presidential race. Kander will likely have to significantly outpace Clinton and win a number of Trump supporters to make the race truly competitive, though Democrats are putting money on the line, hoping to do just that.
“Jason Kander has turned out to be a decent recruit who is running a smart campaign; he's really been the polar opposite of the so called ‘A list’ candidates they thought they were getting with [Democratic Senate candidates] Ted Strickland, Patrick Murphy and Katie McGinty,” said one Republican operative working on Senate races. “That said, Kander's liberal voting record may make it an uphill battle for him to win in a conservative state like Missouri."