Missouri fortunes a tossup if U.S. Senate flips to GOP control

Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri picks legislative projects that build her personal brand by linking it to causes that draw headlines but are rarely polarizing.
Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri picks legislative projects that build her personal brand by linking it to causes that draw headlines but are rarely polarizing. The Associated Press

The prospect of a Republican takeover of the U.S. Senate is both good and bad news for Missouri’s two senators.

A GOP win would propel Republican Sen. Roy Blunt into a more prominent leadership role in his own party. But it would weaken the clout of Missouri’s Democratic senator, Claire McCaskill, who would lose her committee chairmanships and with them a powerful platform for influencing public policy and promoting her legislative agenda.

The party that holds the majority in the Senate determines control of committees, hearings and the timing of votes.

Blunt, who serves in the Senate’s minority leadership as vice chairman of the Republican conference, would be poised to take on a similar _ or even greater role _ in a majority GOP Senate.

Blunt also is well positioned to negotiate for plum committee assignments.

He currently is the top Republican on a subcommittee of the Commerce Committee and on a Senate panel that oversees federal funding for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, rural development, and the Food and Drug Administration. The chairmanship of that subcommittee in particular would be an attractive prize for Blunt in a Republican Senate, given that agriculture is Missouri’s number one industry.

Blunt’s colleague McCaskill has a lot riding on the outcome of elections in November, too.

If Democrats hang onto their majority _ a possibility that is looking increasingly unlikely _ McCaskill would be in line for a possible chairmanship of the Special Committee on Aging and would rise to at least the third most senior member of the Armed Services Committee.

The second-term senator also could be tapped to head the Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, a panel that has jurisdiction to conduct probes on federal waste, fraud and abuse, corporate crime, corruption, and national security. McCaskill, a former prosecutor, has said she’d love that job.

A Republican seizure of the Senate would nix that opportunity, however. And McCaskill would be bumped from her chairmanships of subcommittees on financial and contracting oversight and consumer protection.

McCaskill has never served in a legislative minority either in the U.S. Senate or in the Missouri General Assembly, so it would be uncharted territory for her.

“It’s a different experience all together, just even in terms of the tactics that you deploy when you’re always playing defense and looking for small procedural wins to sort of make your day rather than passing legislation,” said John Hancock, a Missouri Republican strategist. “Some legislators are good in that minority environment and others aren’t. We don’t have any history to look at with Sen. McCaskill.”

The fallout could prompt McCaskill to consider her next political move: Should she leave an unfriendly Senate to seek a post in the Obama administration or to run for governor in Missouri in 2016?

In addition to the governorship, McCaskill’s name is being floated by Missouri political operatives and analysts as a possible replacement for Attorney Gen. Eric Holder, or as a Democratic vice presidential candidate.

Hancock, for one, wouldn’t be shocked if McCaskill decided to throw her hat into the Missouri gubernatorial race. She ran unsuccessfully for the state’s governorship in 2004.

“I think deep down she really wants to be governor, and I bet you that starts looking better all the time once she starts serving in the minority,” Hancock said.

In the end, given that Missouri’s Senate delegation is split between a Republican and Democrat, the net effect of a switch in party control would be modest at best, said Steven Smith, a political science professor at Washington University in St. Louis.

“There’s something that goes with being in the majority party in the Senate, but it’s not a whole lot,” he said. “A minority of senators are in a position to filibuster. The Senate is a pretty egalitarian institution and in spite of the deep partisanship, the truth is that a lot of individual senators get along on a personal basis just fine and they work pretty hard at relationships across the aisle.”

There is one wildcard at play, with potentially big implications for Missouri politics: The Senate’s Minority Leader Mitch McConnell could lose his bid for re-election in Kentucky.

If the Republicans still manage to win the majority despite a McConnell loss, Blunt would almost certainly be a candidate for the next Majority Leader of the Senate, analysts say.

“What happens to Blunt turns a little bit on what happens to McConnell,” Smith said. “There might be an open competition for Republican leader. Sen. Blunt would be very tempted to make a run at it himself, and he’d make a very strong case based on the fact that he had a parallel leadership role in the House.”

Blunt served as both Majority and Minority Whip in the House of Representatives, and mounted an unsuccessful bid for House majority leader before his election to the Senate in 2010.

Among his colleagues on Capitol Hill, Blunt has a reputation as a solid conservative and an effective spokesman for the GOP, Smith said.

“He also has this non-radical kind of moderate temperament and there are quite a few Republicans around who think they need that kind of spokesman for the party,” he said.

But Missouri Senator as Majority Leader could be a two-edged sword for the state, and for Blunt, who would have to balance roles as a representative of Missourians and as leader of his party.

“On the one hand you have a Senator who can demand the attention of anyone in government anywhere if he chooses to do so,” Smith said. “On the other hand, he’s also the leader of a national party, really, and his attention is taken up by leadership duties. So it becomes a bit of a challenge.”