National money and local action may be crucial in Missouri's hot U.S. Senate contest | St. Louis Public Radio

National money and local action may be crucial in Missouri's hot U.S. Senate contest

Sep 18, 2016

Democrat Jason Kander’s new TV ad, which shows him assembling an assault weapon blindfolded, already has been hailed by the Washington Post as the best campaign ad so far this year.

That’s just the latest evidence of the national attention – and money – that’s been pouring into Missouri for months to aid or attack Kander or the man he hopes to defeat in November, U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo.

Just within the past few weeks:

  • The national GOP's Senate Leadership Fund has announced it will spend $2.5 million to help Blunt, 66, who's seeking a second term.
  • The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee pledged to provide $1.5 million to help Kander, 35, currently Missouri's secretary of state.
  • Two outside groups are airing new ads on behalf of Kander, and contrasting his military service with Blunt's deferments during the Vietnam War: VoteVets PAC, which  is launching a $400,000 broadcast and cable buy, and End Citizens United, which is spending $770,000.
  • The National Rifle Association, which has endorsed Blunt, is running attack ads against Kander, and highlighting his 2009 vote in the Missouri House against a bill that barred local governments from imposing gun restrictions. Another pro-Blunt group, the Missouri arm of Americans for Prosperity, is sending out mailers against Kander that accuse him of supporting the federal health insurance changes known as the Affordable Care Act.
  • Vice President Joe Biden stopped in St. Louis to help Kander raise money. A few months ago, former President George W. Bush did the same for Blunt.

All that national attention underscores the importance that both parties are placing on the Missouri contest, seen as among the most competitive Senate races in the country. The outcome in Missouri could determine whether the GOP holds onto the U.S. Senate, or the Democrats snatch it back.

Dave Robertson, head of the political science department at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, says more outside money has been flowing into Missouri in recent weeks, in part, because recent polls  indicate that the U.S. Senate race is neck and neck.

“Some other races, most notably in Ohio, have faded as an opportunity for a Democratic pickup," Robertson said. "This is still a hot opportunity for the Democrats to get the seat that they need to get a majority in the Senate.”

All politics is local

But for either side, it’s the local efforts that will count. Kander and Blunt know that in a state whose electorate is close to 50-50, statewide, victory depends on their success in attracting votes in key local areas.

Among the most important? Jefferson County.

Missouri Republican Party chairman John Hancock calls Jefferson County – a mix of blue-collar workers, suburbanites and farmers -- as one of the 10 most important counties in the state, when it comes to politics.

A look at Jefferson County voting through the last time Sen. Roy Blunt ran.
Credit St. Louis Beacon archive

Jefferson County often is seen as a political “bellwether,’’ with vote percentages that frequently mirror those statewide. And Jefferson County voters often split their tickets.

In 2012, for example, Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney carried Jefferson County by about 13 percentage points. So did U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Democrat. In both cases, the percentages were close to their tallies statewide.

Blunt has made at least six campaign stops in Jefferson County since his campaign kickoff in February, his campaign says. Most have been to family-owned businesses, such as Heizer Defense LLC in Pevely, which produces aerospace parts and firearms. During a visit to Heizer a few weeks ago, Blunt addressed workers to highlight his campaign focus on curbing taxes and cutting regulations, along with a pitch on gun rights.

Blunt notes that he carried Jefferson County handily in 2010, when he first ran for the U.S. Senate and easily defeated Democrat Robin Carnahan. But in 2012, Kander carried Jefferson County as well – which may have been crucial to his narrow statewide win for Missouri secretary of state.

Kander’s also been campaigning in Jefferson County, although it’s unclear if he’s made as many stops there as Blunt.

Will the ‘Trump effect’ sway Jefferson County voters?

This election year, there’s another key reason for Republican optimism when it comes to Jefferson County : GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump. 

Republican Party activists believe Trump is mobilizing strong enthusiasm among the county’s blue-collar population, especially men. His local supporters, for example, are opening their own pro-Trump campaign office in Fenton’s Gravois Bluffs’ area, which borders Jefferson County.

“Trump will blow the doors off in Jefferson County,’’ said Republican consultant James Harris.

The GOP hope is that a pro-Trump showing at the polls in Jefferson County, and like-minded parts of the state, will have a trickle-down effect for the other contests on the ballot.

The race for the U.S. Senate could be the most affected by the presidential battle, because the Senate contest – unlike the other statewide races –  involves many of the same issues that also impact people’s choices for the White House.

Take, for example, Trump supporters like electrical contractor Mark Deuster, who lives in Arnold, in Jefferson County. Deuster says he’s never  been so enthusiastic about a candidate. He keeps his office stocked with pro-Trump material, from leaflets to yard signs.

Trump, says the contractor, “is forcing people to have the conversation about immigration, about jobs going overseas, about how our country is falling so far behind the rest of the world because the politicians in DC are selling us out,” Deuster said.

Deuster is somewhat wary of Blunt, who’s been in Washington almost 20 years. But the contractor plans to vote for the senator because he isn’t a fan of Kander, who Deuster suspects would be an ally of Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.

Who’s the insider?

Blunt, 66, was first elected to public office in 1972 as Greene County clerk. He was elected Missouri secretary of state in 1984, won re-election in 1988 and lost a GOP bid for governor in 1992. After a stint as a college president, he was elected to the U.S. House in 1996 and to U.S. Senate in 2010.

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Kander, 35, is a lawyer and military veteran, serving as an Army lieutenant in Afghanistan. He was elected to the Missouri House in 2008, representing a district in the Kansas City. He ran and won his current post as secretary of state in 2012.

Although a Democrat, Kander’s campaign appears to be adopting Trump’s similar “outsider’’ message, as Kander tries to paint Blunt as “the consummate insider.” Among other things, Kander’s campaign – and allied groups – have been highlighting the fact that Blunt’s wife, Abigail, and at least two of his children have worked as lobbyists.

(Blunt’s camp is circulating assertions that Kander’s wife may have worked as a lobbyist before he was in politics, but she and former coworkers have denied any such activity.)

Kander also has sought to paint Blunt as part of the Republican obstructionism in Washington. Among other things, Kander has tried to link Blunt to the stalemate in Congress over funding to fight the dangerous Zika virus spread by mosquitoes.

Meanwhile,  Blunt and allied groups are running ads, either on TV or on the internet, that attempt to paint Kander as a liberal too loyal to Clinton.

Blunt’s campaign also has run an ad for weeks that attempts to blame Kander for some of the recent election controversies in the St. Louis area, although the secretary of state’s office has little jurisdiction over local election authorities – which Blunt can attest to, from his own experience with St. Louis area election misdeeds during his eight-year tenure in the office.

The latest campaign-finance reports have shown Blunt with more money in the bank, although Kander’s pace of money-raising has been close over the last year. But their own coffers may well be overshadowed by the flood of outside money that is expected to continue to pour in to the Missouri contest.  Just this month, at least $4 million has been pledged for ads or mailers attacking Blunt or Kander.

Some of the spending also is targeted.  According to the NRA's news release, its anti-Kander ad is running in southwest Missouri -- already prime Republican territory. That indicates the aim is energize the GOP base.

Ads, attacks focus on guns and the military

Many of the pro-Kander ads run by outside groups are highlighting his military service. Coupled with his own assault-weapon ad, those spots highlight the key roles of guns and the military in both campaigns.

The power of such jabs may explain why Blunt’s new ad opens with defense of his record. An announcer blasts Kander for his false attacks, then says, "Roy Blunt supports our veterans, that’s why he recently received the VFW lifetime achievement award.’’

Robertson at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, says there are strategic reasons candidates are focusing more on their military service and support for veterans.

For a young candidate like Kander, the professor said, promoting his military service "is a very, very quick way to communicate both his capability to be in a leadership position, and communicates responsibility."

There's also the broader advantage, Robertson said. “The military experience meshes well with the fact that Americans, looking at the polls, have lost a lot of faith in almost all their institutions. But their faith in the military has grown.”

As for Blunt's focus on gun rights, Robertson added, "Missouri has a strong culture for gun rights and hunting. That's often a winning strategy for candidates in this state."