Most of the people gathered outside of Washington University’s Edison Theater before a recent GOP Senate Primary debate already knew who they were voting for.
But Shelby Hewerdine wasn’t sure yet.
So, she drove in from St. Charles to get a better feel for the character of each candidate.
“I don’t know how else people are going to look at it because they are very similar on the issues, so, we’ll see,” Hewerdine said.
And during the debate, the three main candidates laid out basically the same policy platform.
Here’s St. Louis Businessman John Brunner on government expenditures: “Number one, we just have to stop the spending.”
Former State Senator and Treasurer Sarah Steelman on reining in the size of the federal government: “So, I support a balanced budget amendment to the constitution and a cap on the size of government.”
And Congressman Todd Akin on the Affordable Care Act: “And, I won’t give up until every last sentence of Obamacare is repealed.”
With little separation between their respective platforms, all three are racing to establish themselves as the most honest-to-goodness, sure bet conservative.
Differences are more about approach than policy stance
“I’d say it’s a campaign for the heart and soul of a Republican party that has some real fissures right now, some real splits,” said Dave Robertson, a political scientist at the University of Missouri St. Louis.
He says when it comes policy you have to magnify the fine points to see any daylight between their positions.
“We’re going to see a little bit of a differentiation on health care, for example,” Robertson said. “Todd Akin is taking a very anti-government approach and would like people left to make more of their own decisions. Sarah Steelman, with an economics background, is arguing there should be more competitiveness in markets. These aren’t big differences, but they're different approaches to applying conservatism.”
As for Brunner, his solution for affordable health care starts with tort reform.
Brunner spends big, leans on business background
Using almost entirely his own money, Brunner has outspent each of his opponents about ten to one so far.
Brunner says it’s justified because he’s facing candidates who are already known to Missouri Republicans.
“You have to spend the dollars to let folks know that there’s another choice, and that’s my only motivation,” Brunner said.
He says that as a successful businessman he’s best suited to fix a struggling economy.
And to fortify his pitch to voters, Brunner’s campaign is pumping out TV ads that portray his competitors as career politicians.
At the end of one television ad a photo of Akin morphs into Barrack Obama and Steelman shape shifts to Clare McCaskill.
Akin touts his conservative record in Congress
Akin calls the ad laughable, and says he’s the most conservative member of the state’s congressional delegation.
On a recent evening he’s standing in the parking lot of Yacovelli's restaurant next to I-270.
Before speaking to the local Republic Club, Akin says is strategy is to avoid going negative.
“Brunner and Steelman, they’re good people, why should I run them down to push myself up. So, our theory has been, OK, let’s keep it positive,” Brunner said.
Steelman positions herself as the outsider, more in touch with rural voters
Steelman, on the other hand, has no problem swinging back at Brunner.
She bristles when asked to respond to Brunner’s claim that she’s playing into a Democratic effort to target him.
“John Brunner has done nothing but attack since day one,” Steelman said. “He has run literally millions and millions of dollars against me and against Congressman Akin in vicious attacks. And, so, for him to say that is ridiculous.”
Steelman has worked to position herself at the true outsider of the trio, and more in touch rural constituents.
She says she wants to kick open the door to Congress’s good old boy club and take the people with her.
One last sprint to primary night
With the party’s nomination still up for grabs, Steelman, Akin and Brunner will spend the remaining days before the Aug. 7 primary barnstorming the state looking to win over any undecided Republicans.
The stakes are high, too, according to new poll by the St. Louis Post Dispatch and News 4, any of them would beat Democratic incumbent Clare McCaskill in a head-to-head matchup.
Other primary candidates are Jerry Beck, Mark Memoly, Mark Lodes, Robert Poole and Hector Maldonado.
- For more on this year’s campaigns and elections, go to Beyond November, a coordinated election project with St. Louis Public Radio, Nine Network of Public Media and The St. Louis Beacon.
Follow Tim Lloyd on Twitter: @TimSLloyd