Democrats have a number of Senate seats to defend this cycle. Actually twenty-three to be exact. Depending on the presidential election results they can only afford to lose a net three or four seats to retain control of the Senate. Democrats gained control of Congress on the backs of a new breed of young, attractive moderate and conservative politicians winning in typically inhospitable territory for the left. But now these same Democrats have watched many of their fellow freshman in the Senate and House be washed away in a conservative tide in 2010. And there is no wind at their backs to help them like there was in 2006.
Two freshman Senators in conservative states in danger this cycle immediately come to mind; Senator Jon Tester in Montana and Claire McCaskill of Missouri. But McCaskill is in far more trouble then Tester for a variety of reasons. Tester is charming, charismatic, down to earth and comfortable with the average joe and jane. It helps explain why he is in a dead heat with GOP challenger Congressman Denny Rehburg. McCaskill is none of these things.
McCaskill had a rich and successful political history before her upset victory in 2006 against GOP Senator Jim Talent. In 1982 she was elected to the state House of Representatives. In 1990 she was elected to the Jackson City Council (equal to a County Commissioner elsewhere) and soon after won two terms as Jackson County Prosecutor in 1992 and 1996. Soon after in 98 she ran for the position of State Auditor and won. In late 2002 she began making noise about challenging incumbent Democratic Governor Bob Holden in the primary. Her challenge proved to be well-founded as she defeated the Governor in the 2004 Democratic primary becoming the first women to defeat an incumbent in a primary since 1994. She went on to lose to then Secretary of State Matt Blunt (now the freshman Senator of MO and elected in 2010).
McCaskill’s victory in 2006 was not as much an upset victory as voters rejecting President Bush in office. Well respected and liked not even Senator Jim Talent (R) could out-run how much voters disapproved of Bush nation-wide. McCaskill, a known name in Democratic and conservative circles in the state capitalized on it. She eked out a narrow 3%, 46,000 vote victory over the incumbent. But six years later, voters appear to be rejecting her as a President of the same party and a Democratic controlled Senate refuse to address the issues she campaigned on, Congressional reform, cutting the debt and being firm on defense.
McCaskill has not been as conservative as she likes to tell voters. She voted for bigger and bigger budgets in 2007 and 2008 when Bush was President. She backed the Stimulus in early 2009, helped shepard Obamacare through the Senate, backed the Cash for Clunkers Program and once voiced support for Cap and Trade in 2010. Along with most of her party since 2011 she has voted to table House bills repealing Obamacare.
It appears Missouri voters have not approved of her positions. In the RCP average of polls, dating from late May to today, she loses to all three of her GOP challengers. Congressman Todd Akin, businessman John Brunner and former State Treasurer Sarah Steelman are vying to face her in November. The latest poll out by Mason Dixon has her losing to Brunner by 12, Steelman by 8 and Akin by 5 points. It is a toss-up who will come out of the GOP primary in August.
McCaskill has not been helped by recent events. Last year it was discovered that she had not paid taxes on her private jet for years. She did not respond promptly to the revelation. The Supreme Court decision on Obamacare has not helped her either. Since the decision upholding the majority of the law the GOP has decided to put front and center to voters of Missouri her three votes (closure, vote to end debate and vote for final passage) for Obamacare. And in truth her campaign has no defense. She backed the measure and has helped keep it law repeatedly since.
McCaskill’s camp has reportedly been playing in the GOP primary. A new ad from her campaign attacked Steelman and Brunner last week but did not mention Akin. Polling, internal and independent, has shown she runs better against the Congressman than her other two possible challengers. It is not likely to have much effect.
The DSCC has promised to aid the Senator. But so far they have not come through. And McCaskill’s campaign has been hemorrhaging money lately. In the campaign’s latest filing with the FEC (June 1-April 30), the campaign raised $2.6 million but spent $5 million. Her campaign had $3.6 million at the end of June. By contrast none of her opponents short of Akin had over one-million in the bank. But Steelman’s fundraising has reportedly picked up in recent weeks and Brunner has the ability to self-fund to the tune of millions of dollars. The GOP courted him to run specifically for that reason.
McCaskill’s woes only add to Democratic fears about losing the Senate this year. Combined with Nebraska it guarantees Democrats are sure to lose two seats. In recent months Democrats have gotten breaks with Olympia Snowe’s (R-ME) retirement and Heidi Heitikamp running dead even with Congressman Rick Berg in ND. But polling in Montana shows Tester behind and in Florida and OH the GOP challengers are either gaining (OH) or even with their opponent (FL). Democrats also face tough races to hold open seats in Virginia and NM. Even an open seat in Hawaii looks like it only leans Democratic (a recent poll from the Honolulu Advertiser begs to differ).
McCaskill’s problems are of her own making. She has backed liberal legislation since she entered office, is out of touch with her constituents and is paying the price for it. Even in a presidential year which is sure to see higher turnout in metro Kansas City and metro St. Louis she cannot count on a close race. Rural voters have turned away from her and the same suburban men and women she won in 2006 are leaning more to the GOP. If McCaskill is to win she needs to outperform among women like she did in 2006 and hope turnout in metro St.Louis and Kansas City puts her over the top. The election is still 100 days away and a lot can change but right now, even if McCaskill gets Akin as her opponent, she is unlikely to see a second term in the Senate.