ST. LOUIS — Candidates for US Senate have all been dealt similar hands for this midterm election: a president with low job approval, rising voter uneasiness about the Iraq war, and flat wages. But here in Missouri, there's a wild card in the Senate contest – stem-cell research.
It's possible that a stem-cell ballot initiative here could affect voter turnout enough to tip one of the country's closest Senate races. Trouble is, no one can predict with confidence which candidate would benefit most: the Republican incumbent, who opposes a state constitutional amendment to permit the use of embryonic stem cells for medical research, or the Democratic challenger, who supports it.
About 51 percent of Missouri voters favor Amendment 2 while 35 percent are against it, a Research 2000 poll reported last weekend. Support for the amendment has fallen in recent months with more voters now saying they are undecided about it. The amendment would permit the use in Missouri of any federally allowed stem-cell research and treatments, including work involving human embryos.
But the advantage may in fact go to Sen. Jim Talent, running to serve a second term, because the stem-cell issue could bring to the polls the state's social conservatives who, while they are voting against Amendment 2, would also be likely to cast a vote for him.
The team behind challenger Claire McCaskill (D) "is banking on voter support for stem cell [research] to translate into support for her," says David Kimball, a political scientist at the University of Missouri here. "But it may actually energize conservative voters. If that issue were not on the ballot, they might not have as much reason to come out and vote."
An 11th-hour, TV-ad slugfest over the stem-cell measure may have served to stimulate voter interest. In an ad that debuted Oct. 21 during the first game of the World Series, actor Michael J. Fox touted Ms. McCaskill and attacked Senator Talent for failing to support the amendment. Talent supports stem-cell research that doesn't involve cloning or destroying a human embryo, but has said he opposes the amendment because it would "make cloning human life at the earliest state a constitutional right." Conservative talk-show host Rush Limbaugh subsequently leapt on Mr. Fox, and a group opposing the initiative rebutted the Fox ad.
The video by Missourians Against Human Cloning features World Series hero-pitcher Jeff Suppan, former St. Louis Rams quarterback Kurt Warner, and James Caviezel, the actor who portrayed Jesus in Mel Gibson's movie, "The Passion of the Christ." Mr. Caviezel begins the ad speaking in Aramaic and concludes with the warning: "You know now. Don't do it," referring to voting for the amendment.
Such ads could resonate with Roman Catholic voters, who make up about 16 percent of Missouri's 5.8 million residents. Many priests in the state have taken a strong stance against the stem-cell measure, some even handing out antiamendment yard signs after Sunday Mass, according to a parishioner who saw it happening at his church.
"We're strong Catholics," he says, asking that his name not be used. "But we're not happy about the church's big push on this. They're going all out."
A CNN/Opinion Research poll on Monday showed the Senate race to be "a tossup," with Talent and McCaskill each garnering 49 percent support from likely voters.
The stakes are high. "This Missouri race could be the difference between keeping a [Republican] majority in the Senate and not keeping it," says Brooke Buchanan, a Republican National Committee spokeswoman. "We're prepared to do anything it takes to make sure Senator Talent continues to be the senator from Missouri."
The tight race has drawn the national parties and their fellow travelers, who have poured manpower and money into the state. The result: Missourians have been lashed by a maelstrom of conflicting, often negative ads on TV and in print. The Talent camp has slammed McCaskill with charges that she misused her post as state auditor. Groups supporting McCaskill are publicizing Talent's votes against raising the minimum wage – and berating him for taking $165,000 in annual pay as a senator.
Of course, many factors go into most voters' calculus about whom to vote for, and stem-cell research is just one. The Iraq war is the biggest concern here, reflected in President Bush's 37 percent popularity rating with Missourians. McCaskill's team has been bent on linking Mr. Bush and Talent, saying the senator doesn't represent "Missouri values" but is simply a rubber stamp for failed Bush policies, most notably Iraq.
That message resonates even among some Republicans.
"Jim's position is basically that, whatever Bush wants, he gets. His percentage of voting with the president is abnormally high, and it's hurt him," says a state Republican Party activist who asked not to be named because he is upset with Talent and might vote against him. "Talent will depend upon the get-out-the-vote machinery. We can get the people out all right, but can we get them to cast [their votes] the way we want [them] to?"
On a recent Sunday, Franklin and Tresa McCallie went door-to-door in Kirkwood – a conservative, upper-middle-class St. Louis suburb – to campaign for Democratic candidates. They say they found an unusual responsiveness.
"I'm a yellow-dog Democrat who was raised a conservative in Chattanooga, Tennessee," Mr. McCallie says in a pronounced drawl. "Kirkwood typically goes Republican. But the problem for Mr. Talent is that all the issues are running against him. You have people in Kirkwood who are not all wealthy or rich, and they're questioning the status quo."
The old calculus for winning in Missouri was to carry the big cities and suburbs in five counties, where about 52 percent of the voters live. But in recent elections, that equation was upended by turnout surges in the state's 109 rural counties. Rural Missouri, with its strong contingent of Christian conservatives, has gone strongly for Bush and Republicans.
But fewer rural conservatives may be with Talent this year, thanks to the Iraq war, analysts say. As a result, McCaskill is pursuing what some see as a risky strategy of spending the end of the campaign shuttling between St. Louis and rural towns like Kirksville and Sikeston – where she and Talent recently appeared in a parade, riding just floats apart – to try to make inroads into Republican territory.
Talent, meanwhile, has been stumping in rural sections of the state, shoring up his base in towns such as Mexico, Mo., and Rogersville. The big question is whether the stem-cell turnout will be enough to reelect Talent.
"Voters are predisposed to be upset with the governing party, and that's the Republicans," says Dr. Kimball. "All the big issues are running up against the powerful Republican turnout machine. So I just don't know what to expect, honestly. This is not a typical election."