For endangered Republicans this year, the way out of this box (or so they hoped) was to focus on cultural matters. All across southwest Missouri—a heavily Republican region that McCaskill refers to as Ashcroftland—Talent incited lusty applause by rattling off a familiar litany of issues: gay marriage, abortion, the Supreme Court, immigration. (Intriguingly, he avoided the topic of stem-cell research, so hot in Missouri after the Michael J. Fox–Rush Limbaugh imbroglio.) Here, too, the implications for 2008 are significant: Assuming that a fair number of moderate Republicans lose their seats on November 7, the one faction of the GOP coalition likely to emerge more powerful is Christian conservatives. And their influence will only be magnified further if, in the end, they provide the margin of victory for candidates such as Talent.
Which brings us to McCaskill and the challenge she’s been wrestling with since the campaign began. In her gubernatorial race in 2004, McCaskill trounced her opponent in St. Louis and Kansas City—but she won just 8 of Missouri’s 109 rural and exurban counties. So she has labored mightily this time to make inroads in the countryside. She has taken conservative positions on issues such as immigration. She has taken borderline protectionist positions on issues such as outsourcing. And yet, so far, there’s scant evidence that her efforts have gained her much support from rural voters. According to a recent L.A. Times/Bloomberg poll, Talent holds a commanding 56 to 37 percent lead among them.
The race in Missouri throws doubt on the Rove-inspired wisdom that swing voters no longer matter.
For McCaskill—along with Harold Ford Jr. in Tennessee and Jim Webb in Virginia—the inability to break through in precincts beyond the cities and suburbs may prove to be a fatal stumbling block. And if it does, it will raise anew the question of whether Democrats have what it takes to win in the swing states that are pivotal to any national election.
McCaskill, for her part, believes the question is premature. Wait and see, she assures me; even here in Ashcroftland, disgust with Republicans is deep and abiding. All she needs is a small uptick from her past rural performance to send Talent packing. Already she’s survived a brutal welter of Republican negative advertising. By running relentlessly toward the center, by being nearly as critical of much Democratic orthodoxy as she is of Republican lunacy, she has held her ground despite a 3:1 fund-raising disadvantage. She has thrown doubt on the Karl Rove–inspired wisdom that swing voters no longer matter—to the point that Talent has felt compelled to spend much of the year chasing after them, too.
Thus the real lesson of the Missouri race, no matter which side prevails: the partisan alignments in the Show-Me State are in a serious state of upheaval. And that can only be for the good. Not mainly because it benefits the Democrats. But because it would suggest that the electoral map is truly up for grabs again.