Politics & Government

GOP takes aim at unseating Missouri Democrat Ike Skelton

WASHINGTON — As last week's political shock wave from Massachusetts rolls across the country, Missouri's heartland could begin to feel the impact.

Will it be strong enough to topple Democratic Rep. Ike Skelton, one of the most senior lawmakers in Congress and a respected figure on both sides of the aisle?

Republicans are encouraged. Capturing a Senate seat in Massachusetts, which Democrats have held since the Eisenhower era, was an important boost in a critical midterm election year.

"I think Scott Brown's victory shows that if a Republican can win in the bluest of blue states, then Ike Skelton is in for a world of hurt," said Tom Erickson, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee.

The loss made Democrats painfully aware that their four-year honeymoon with the voters may be over.

Independent voters, a key bloc that President Barack Obama won in 2008, have deserted Democrats in recent elections in Virginia, New Jersey and now Massachusetts.

"I don’t think it's a case of if Massachusetts sneezes, Missouri catches a cold," said Jim Kessler, vice president for policy for the Third Way, a moderate Democratic group. "But there's a real realization among Democrats that this is a serious election and everybody has to be prepared, no matter how safe they've been in the past, and you've got 10 months to do it."

Democrats are wrestling with what to do. Do they tack to the right or the left? Do they pursue health care reform, or would that anger voters even more? The economy remains their biggest worry, and the public right now has little confidence in them.

Missouri is a case in point. The state jobless rate last month was 9.6 percent. Voters usually vote their pocketbooks, and more than half of Missourians say the economy is in poor shape, according to the latest Rasmussen poll. Nearly half think it’s getting worse.

Obama offers his party little help. If the election were held today, he would be an albatross to a lot of Democrats. The poll showed that nearly 60 percent of Missouri voters disapprove of the job he's doing.

Already, 11 House Democrats, including Rep. Dennis Moore of Kansas, are heading for the doors and not seeking re-election, for one reason or another.

"Democrats in the (House) cloakroom are fully aware of the mood that's out there," Skelton said. "Folks became anxious and felt like they were not listened to."

Vicky Hartzler, a Republican former Missouri state legislator hoping to run against Skelton next fall, said Massachusetts was "a reliable predictor of what is to come."

Skelton, 78, was an unlikely political target only a year ago. He was entering his 33rd year on Capitol Hill, chairman of the powerful House Armed Services Committee at a time when war policy was about to undergo a critical transition.

But growing public anger over the economy and the fractious health care debate sent Democratic stock plummeting. On Tuesday it hit rock bottom in the Massachusetts election.

"The fact that we're talking about Massachusetts is stunning," said David Winston, a Republican political strategist. "If you're a Democrat anywhere in country and you're looking at Massachusetts, do you have an electorate better than that? Most don't. So if you're a Democrat, you're nervous."

Skelton has rarely faced a tough re-election. But if he's vulnerable this year, it will be not only because of his party label, but also because he has long relied on Republicans to win 17 successive terms.

Missouri's 4th District, which encompasses a big chunk of central and western Missouri, is a red district. Sen. John McCain won it when he was the Republican presidential nominee in 2008. Former President George W. Bush won it in both national elections before that.

Skelton campaign strategist Ken Morley said the Skelton camp is taking the race, and what happened in Massachusetts, seriously, but he points to Skelton's record over the years.

"Ike Skelton's support is not based on partisanship, but on a record of independent leadership and a record of delivering for the people of Missouri," Morley said. "He's enjoyed the trust of Republicans and independents for a long, long time."

That's true, said Missouri state Sen. Bill Stouffer, another Republican who hopes to face Skelton in the fall. But Stouffer said that the congressman no longer reflects the mood of the district.

Skelton opposed the House health care reform bill. Yet Republicans intend to attack him on his closeness to the Democratic leadership, which he has voted with more than 90 percent of the time in recent years. That's a red flag to so-called Tea Party activists, health care reform opponents and others for whom Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi are political hot buttons.

"People are taking notice," Stouffer said. "This is not just a bunch of ragtag folks making noise."

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