The colorful, pivotal Missouri Senate race has had something for everyone — especially political junkies and poker fans. And there’s still time for at least one more twist.
First there was Democrat Senator Claire McCaskill’s unusual participation in the Republican Senate primary. Armed with poll numbers indicating Representative Todd Akin would be her weakest opponent in November, she ran anti-GOP ads that were actually designed to stroke right-wing erogenous zones by dubbing Akin a “pro-family … true conservative.” Her strategy, akin to keeping a poker opponent with a weak hand from folding, worked beautifully. Akin won the primary.
Then, after Akin’s infamous “legitimate rape” comments prompted calls from the GOP Establishment that he step down, he called the bluff of the National Republican Senatorial Committee by staying in the race. That tactic worked as well — Republican endorsements and funding came flooding back after the deadline for Akin’s withdrawal passed.
Now, with 35 days left until the election, it may be time for McCaskill to deploy one final gambit: ads that subtly promote the Libertarian candidate, a personal trainer named Jonathan Dine.
Dine, who sported a drawn-on “Legalize Marijuana” faux tattoo at an event in 2010,* has more than a little electoral baggage, especially two felony convictions for marijuana possession and identity theft. He is actually ineligible to hold state office in Missouri, but could still play spoiler in the Senate race. At a three-candidate debate last week, he got in the last word: “I promise to keep Republicans out of your bedroom and the Democrats out of your wallet.”
The race, which could determine whether Democrats or Republicans control the U.S. Senate, is currently rated a toss-up, with McCaskill clinging to a one-point lead. Some 11 percent of voters are still undecided despite wall-to-wall political ads and news coverage — suggesting they can’t decide which candidate they dislike more.
“I can’t vote for Akin,” one female Missouri Republican told me recently. “He’s repulsive. But Claire … no way. Just can’t do it.” Thousands of Republican women probably share her sentiments. In another election, those voters might have just stayed home. But given the state’s deep antipathy toward President Obama, who is not contesting Missouri, they’re likely to turn out on Election Day. And the best way for McCaskill to ensure that these Republicans won’t close the curtain, hold their noses, and vote Akin is to provide a better alternative: young, freedom-loving Jonathan Dine.
It’s not that far-fetched. Republicans helped fund Ralph Nader’s attempt to get on the ballot in several states in 2004. Democrats have tried similar tactics, placing third-party candidates likely to draw disproportionately from Republicans on the ballot and funding their GOTV efforts.
Suppose McCaskill or her supporters ran a two-part ad that attacked Akin on earmarking and his rape comments, and then “attacked” Dine for vowing to, say, eliminate the Department of Education — a resonant conservative issue. To woo the 12 percent of Republican voters who supported Ron Paul in the presidential primary, mention that Dine wants to audit the Fed. That 1-2 punch could siphon off thousands of potential Akin voters.
Missouri isn’t a bellwether anymore; its demographic trends aren’t encouraging for Democrats. Until Akin’s idiocy surfaced, McCaskill seemed fatally wounded as an incumbent. Democrats now have a shot, but they shouldn’t rely on recent polls showing Republican-leaning independents moving toward McCaskill.
The safest way to ensure a Democratic win may be to promote a guy with a fake marijuana tattoo on his bulging pecs. They should just make sure he keeps his shirt on.
* This article incorrectly reported that Dine had a "Legalize Marijuana" tattoo on his chest. In fact, it was drawn on with a sharpie.
Jeff Smith is assistant professor of politics and advocacy at the New School’s urban policy graduate program. He served in the Missouri Senate from 2006–2009 and has been convicted of one fewer felony than Jonathan Dine.