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August 08, 2012

Missouri's GOP Senate primary shifts the political landscape

The Missouri Senate contest looks a bit different the morning after Tuesday's Republican primary.

Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill still has a climb to win re-election, but it might not be as steep. Running against Rep.Todd Akin, an extremely conservative lawmaker from suburban St. Louis, changes the political dynamic in significant ways.

Make no mistake, the basic terrain is still the same. McCaskill has been a close ally of President Obama, who would probably lose to the drought in a statewide popularity contest. And the overall political mood is angry, frustrated and anti-incumbent.

Akin won, in part, because the other two GOP contenders, St. Louis businessman John Brunner, and former state Treasurer Sarah Steelman, spent most of their time – and money – scrapping with each other. Indeed, Brunner sunk nearly $7 million into a losing effort.

Akin, a soft-spoken lawmaker, was happy to sit on the sidelines and let them pummel each other, figuring the voters would reward the one who emerged without a trace of mud. That’s a boon for the Democrats, desperate to hold onto the seat. Missouri is pivotal in just about any GOP formula for retaking the Senate.

Had either Brunner or Steelman won the nomination, the fall campaign would have been all about McCaskill. Neither laid down very clear markers of what they would do beyond the obvious bromides about cutting spending, creating jobs and keeping taxes low. Brunner, in particular, has no political record, and pinning down his views was like trying to nail water to a wall.

But there’s little about Akin’s political philosophy that can be massaged or soft-pedaled. Like McCaskill, whose six-year Senate voting record is already well-known and will be scoured further still, Akin has been on Capitol Hill for twice as long and with a political past for all to see.

He has bad-mouthed student loans, for example, and supports privatizing Medicare. That’s just two areas where he is ripe for Democratic attacks. Akin has also been an earmarker, a McCaskill cause celebre which has put her at odds with many of party colleagues, but which is in tune with the public mood.

But the biggest shift that the GOP primary produced has to do with independent voters. With Akin as the party’s Senate standard-bearer, they are much more gettable for McCaskill than if either Brunner or Steelman had won. Generally, independents are not extremists of any political stripe. Many just want workable, sensible solutions, and not a lot of fireworks or posturing.

There’s no question that McCaskill is one of the most, if not the most, endangered Senate Democrat in the country this season. Her ties to the president, the controversy last year over her private plane and the resulting tax problems; they all spell vulnerable incumbent in a bad year.

For Republicans, little has changed. They have long sensed opportunity in Missouri, even when its primary field didn’t produce an A-list contender. McCaskill will continue to get hammered for her votes on the signature Obama initiatives of the health care law and the economic stimulus program.

Great gobs of cash from outside GOP allies, like the Chamber of Commerce and various Super PACs, will continue to flow into the state. Democrats have their own Super PAC backers as well.

But a contest that could have been one where McCaskill’s opponents had her constantly playing defense is now one where she has a flesh and blood target with unalloyed views, and voters should be able to see clear lines of choice.

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