WASHINGTON — As the political spotlight shifts to 2012, the glare will be bright in Missouri, where first-term Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill faces re-election.
Will she be confronting a hostile electorate and a further darkening of the mood that last week knocked Democrats out of power in the House and weakened their hold on the Senate?
Or will unemployment improve over the next 24 months, President Barack Obama’s sagging disapproval rating rebound and the political plates shift yet again?
Though this year’s Senate contest was a runaway for Republicans, Missouri is usually a battleground. But Republicans think that McCaskill’s grip on her seat could be perilous.
“It’s definitely fair to put her among the top five Republican targets,” said Jennifer Duffy, a Senate analyst for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.
Despite their sweep of victories in the Nov. 2 midterm elections, Republicans have held their chest-thumping and predictions to a minimum. Little wonder, given the whipsaw outcomes in two out of the last three election cycles, when congressional control shifted each time.
Democrats are hoping for the best but are under the gun in 2012. McCaskill’s seat is one of 23 in the Senate they will have to defend, while the GOP will have only 10 incumbents facing the voters.
A low Democratic turnout in Missouri hurt the party’s candidates, but it's certain to increase in 2012 because Obama will be on the ballot.
“This was not an issue of more Republicans than Democrats,” said Missouri Democratic strategist Steve Glorioso, a McCaskill ally. “It was more Republicans going to the polls than Democrats.”
McCaskill’s critics paint her as a liberal, but only three other Democratic senators have lower party loyalty scores.
Her supporters said that she's created her own brand of political independence within the party that should help inoculate her with government-wary voters. She's cultivated a profile as a critic of government waste and special interests, a maverick on some issues and a loyalist on others.
McCaskill said she knows she'll have a big target on her back.
“If people don’t think their lives are getting better, they want to try something different,” McCaskill said. “I just have to make sure I work really hard and communicate effectively that I have done exactly what I said I would do, that I have remained true to my pledge to be independent.”
She'll have her work cut out for her.
McCaskill’s own negatives are above 50 percent, according to a recent survey by a Democratic-leaning polling firm. Her path to a second term is strewn with the challenges Democrats face in bouncing back from last week’s thrashing.
One obstacle could be Obama’s presence at the top of the ticket. If his political standing remains low in Missouri, that could hurt.
It would underscore McCaskill’s close ties to him. Her political fortunes have been linked to his since 2008, when she was an early and visible supporter of his presidential campaign.
How does McCaskill finesse the ads that could air in 2012 with her effusively praising Obama?
“Any attempt to extricate herself from him will be an act of disloyalty,” said Democratic Rep. Emanuel Cleaver of Missouri. “She will not do that at all.”
She's supported some of Obama's big ticket policies, like the health care overhaul and the economic stimulus program, but rejected others, including the cap-and-trade climate change measure and several spending bills.
Supporters said she'll have to find a way to trumpet her independence without deserting Obama. There might be an answer in the campaigns this year of Democratic senators from Colorado, California, Nevada and Washington, who won re-election in the face of some tough anti-Obama rhetoric.
Gregg Hartley, a former top aide to Republican Rep. Roy Blunt of Missouri, who won a Senate seat last week, said that he's long admired McCaskill’s political skills.
“I’ve known her a long time, seen her in the state legislature, as auditor, seen what she’s done to grow politically to strengthen her hand,” he said. “She does a pretty super job of creating a position for herself that is unlike other Democrats in Missouri and unlike other Democrats in the Senate. As people begin thinking about who’s going to run against her, we’re going to really have to be at the top of our game.”
Potential rivals include former Sen. Jim Talent, who McCaskill defeated in 2006 to win her Senate seat. His appearances around the state this year for GOP candidates up and down the ticket were a strong hint that he's seriously weighing a rematch.
Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder is another, though he could opt to challenge Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon, who's also up for re-election in 2012.
Also mentioned are party insider Ann Wagner, who used to head the Missouri Republicans and co-chaired the Republican National Committee, and former state Treasurer Sarah Steelman.
“I hope it’s not a free-for-all,” Wagner said. “I don’t think primaries are necessarily bad things. They help candidates get their game on and do all the things one does to win an election. But they can be costly and can be divisive.”
There could be more candidates as well, including someone emerging from the tea party movement to challenge McCaskill.
“I want her running scared,” said Jennifer Ennenbach, a spokeswoman for the St. Louis Tea Party Coalition.
Whatever the political climate is like in two years, McCaskill will need to repeat the strategy that proved so successful in 2006: tend to the party’s base in the cities, and campaign hard in the rural areas and other Republican strongholds, even without any hope of winning them. A few extra percentage points all around the state proved pivotal for her.
But the fabric of voters that McCaskill stitched together back then didn’t materialize this year for Robin Carnahan, the Democrat who lost the Senate contest to Blunt.
Carnahan’s support from independent voters was 20 percent below what McCaskill received in 2006. It’s hard to win Missouri without them.
She also lost women voters, and did worse among whites and seniors. McCaskill will need to lure them back.
A larger problem is that it can be easier to run as a Republican in a state like Missouri because the GOP’s agenda largely reflects the beliefs of most people in the party, no matter where they live.
Democratic views are more fragmented and geographic. Conservatives in the bootheel might feel very differently about government spending or social issues than moderates in Kansas City. Somehow they need to be bridged.
Richard Fulton, who teaches political science at Northwest Missouri State University, said both parties need to wait for the political fallout from the recent election to settle.
“You’ve got to remember how well (McCaskill) did in the rural areas and what a good campaigner she turned out to be,” he said. “But she certainly is worried. It’s going to depend a lot on the ability of Obama to re-establish himself. But two years is a long time.”