On a chilly November night in Joplin, Missouri, Claire McCaskill reclines in the RV that carries her along the campaign trail, reflecting on a piece of news she’s been talking about all day: George W. Bush is coming to Missouri to stump for her rival, incumbent Senator Jim Talent. In 2002 or 2004, the impending arrival of the president would likely have caused McCaskill to despair. But now she sees it as a sign that victory is within her grasp. “It says that they’re worried about their base showing up,” McCaskill tells me. “They haven’t been able to pull away with persuasion and character attacks—so now they have to risk a Bush visit in order to motivate tried-and-true Republicans to turn out on Election Day.”
McCaskill’s analysis is unexceptionable, but it leaves out one thing: Her own campaign has proved no more capable of seizing a decisive lead. Indeed, for months, the Missouri Senate race has been the tightest in the country, a statistical dead heat—a state of affairs made all the more momentous by the fact that the outcome may determine which party controls the upper chamber come January.
By the time many readers come across this column, that outcome will be known. Yet no matter which side ultimately prevails in Missouri, the McCaskill-Talent race is worth considering in detail, for the campaign provides a window on the larger battle looming in 2008; on the question of whether the bright-line red-blue polarities that have marked the age of Bush are morphing into something far less stable, and far more interesting.
Missouri, of course, has long been seen as a national bellwether. The state has voted for the winner in 25 of the past 26 presidential elections (the exception being 1956, when Adlai Stevenson beat Dwight D. Eisenhower there by a mere 4,000 votes). “Missouri is a carbon copy of America,” McCaskill explains. “We have our East Coast, which is St. Louis. We have our West Coast, which is Kansas City. We have Columbia in the middle, which is our Chicago. And the rest of the state is pretty red. We also have the same demographic breakdown—urban and rural, African-American and Hispanic, and so on—as the rest of the country. So if you can’t find the middle ground in Missouri, you can’t get elected.”
This last point might seem to be rendered dubious by recent history. By Bush’s seven-point victory in Missouri over John Kerry. By robotic ultracon Kit Bond’s successive elections to the Senate since 1986. And, not least, by the very existence of a certain former Missouri governor and senator by the name of John Ashcroft. But the careers of both McCaskill and Talent suggest that Missouri is in fact more purple than it appears. McCaskill, a fiery, populist former prosecutor, won back-to-back races for state auditor before losing narrowly in her bid for governor in 2004. Meanwhile, Talent, a hard-core conservative, lost his own race for governor in 2000 (by just 21,000 votes) before being elected to the Senate two years later by an equally threadbare margin.
The Talent campaign provides an object lesson in how much the political landscape has shifted since 2002. Then, Talent held Bush close, talked up the war on terror, and presented himself as a fierce partisan. But when I caught up with him last week, I found a different Talent on display. Even in front of rock-ribbed Republican crowds, he rarely mentioned Bush by name. The war on terror was but a footnote in his stump speech, and Iraq was omitted entirely. Instead, what Talent highlighted was the energy bill he co-sponsored and his work with Dianne Feinstein (“We disagree about everything else, but she is a friend”) on legislation to fight the spread of methamphetamines.
McCaskill later provided me with a smart deconstruction of Talent’s pitch. Predictably, she dismissed his paeans to bipartisanship as an obvious sham: “He praises Democrats he says he wants to work with and then demonizes them in ads.” More nuanced was her argument that the reason the Republicans were getting so little mileage this year with rhetoric about the war on terror was that they’d been too successful in the past in marrying that issue to Iraq. “They’d like to unhook them,” McCaskill said, “but Missourians aren’t ready to let them.” And if the choice was talking about both or neither, the safer choice was the latter.
The conundrum McCaskill identified isn’t likely to get any easier for the GOP to deal with as 2008 approaches. Even with Bush’s inevitable senescence, Republicans such as John McCain and Rudy Giuliani, who would ordinarily be able to capitalize on their perceived strength in keeping Americans safe, will be saddled with the legacy of a war they supported as part of that project—and that the electorate now overwhelmingly judges to have been a colossal mistake.
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.