WASHINGTON — As the political spotlight shifts to 2012, the glare will be bright in Missouri, where first-term Democratic U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill will face re-election.
Will she confront a hostile electorate and a further darkening of the mood that 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 in Missouri was a runaway for Republicans, the state is usually a battleground. But Republicans think 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.
But despite their victories in the midterm elections, Republicans have held their chest-thumping and predictions to a minimum. Little wonder, given the whipsaw outcomes in two of the last three election cycles, when congressional control shifted each time.
Democrats are hoping for the best but will be under the gun in 2012. McCaskill’s seat is one of 23 in the Senate that they will have to defend, while the GOP will have only 10 incumbents facing the voters.
A low Democratic turnout in Missouri on Election Day hurt the party’s candidates, but it is certain to increase in 2012 because Obama probably 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 has created her own brand of political independence within the party that should help inoculate her with government-wary voters. She has cultivated a profile as a critic of government waste and special interests, a maverick on some issues and a loyalist on others.
McCaskill, however, said she knew she would 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 will have her work cut out for her.
McCaskill’s 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 that Democrats face in bouncing back from their thrashing.
One obstacle could be Obama’s presumed 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.
How would 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 U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver of Missouri. “She will not do that at all.”
She has supported some of Obama’s big-ticket policies, such as health care reform and the economic stimulus program, but rejected others, including cap and trade and several spending bills.
Supporters said she must trumpet her independence without deserting him. There might be an answer in the campaigns this year of Democratic senators from Colorado, California, Nevada and Washington, who won re-election in face of shrill anti-Obama rhetoric.
Gregg Hartley, a former top aide to Republican U.S. Rep. Roy Blunt of Missouri, who won a Senate seat on Election Day, said he had 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,” Hartley 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 U.S. Sen. Jim Talent, whom McCaskill defeated in 2006 for her Senate seat. His appearances around the state this year for GOP candidates up and down the ticket were a strong hint that he was seriously weighing a rematch.
Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder is another, though he could opt to challenge Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon, who is also up for re-election in 2012.
Also mentioned are party insider Ann Wagner, who formerly led the Missouri Republicans and co-led the Republican National Committee, and former state Treasurer Sarah Steelman.
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 then did not 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, and 14 percent less than what Obama pulled from the state in 2008. It is 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 from moderates in Kansas City. Somehow they need to be bridged.
As one Missouri Democrat noted, “You can’t split Claire into enough pieces for her to do everything she needs to do.”
Richard Fulton, who teaches political science at Northwest Missouri State University, said both parties needed to wait for the political fallout from the recent elections 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,” Fulton 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.”