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Could a Missouri upset hand the Senate to the Democrats?

An incumbent Republican senator in Missouri is fighting a hard campaign against a Democratic challenger in one of six close races that will determine which party controls the Senate.

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    Democratic candidate Jason Kander, left, speaks along side Republican incumbent Sen. Roy Blunt during the first general election debate in Missouri's race for U.S. Senate at the Missouri Press Association convention on Friday, Sept. 30 in Branson.
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A Republican senator in Missouri may lose his seat to a little-known Democratic challenger in a heated race that could determine which party holds the Senate majority.

Jason Kander, a former military intelligence officer and Missouri’s current secretary of state, suddenly shot up in the polls last month to become an unlikely challenger to incumbent Sen. Roy Blunt. Republicans had previously seen the race as an easy one to win, counting on Mr. Blunt’s likely return to the Senate in 2017.

With just over two weeks before election day, six Senate races in North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Indiana, New Hampshire, Nevada, and Missouri remain closely contested. That’s just large enough to shake up the GOP-dominated Senate. To wrest a majority from Republicans, Democrats will have to secure five of those seats, or four with the presidency, as the vice president casts a vote on any ties. 

Among the contentious Senate races are the contests in several swing states, such as Pennsylvania and New Hampshire, where the outcome of the presidential race isn't apparent. In the case of reliably red Missouri, a young Democratic challenger gaining ground on an incumbent Republican late in the game is more surprising, but doesn’t mean the state is shifting entirely.

“The misconception about Missouri is that it is a red state,” Ken Warren, a professor of political science at St. Louis University, told The New York Times. “They don’t like Democrats at the top of the ticket because they are seen as from out of town. But most of our statewide offices are held by Democrats.”

More eyes have turned to the Senate races this year as concerns over Supreme Court justices reverberate through both parties. The current GOP majority in the Senate has allowed Republicans to block President Obama’s nominee for a vacant seat on the nation’s highest court, and they may continue to do so if Hillary Clinton is elected. Democrats, hoping to fill the current vacancy and two or three others that are likely to arise in the next four or eight years, hope to gain a majority and the presidency in order to push more liberal justices onto the bench, which requires 60 Senate votes.

Mr. Kander, who was hardly known outside of the state when he entered the race, gained widespread support among Missouri voters last month when he aired an ad in which he assembles an AR-15 rifle while blindfolded, advocates for gun rights, and decries his opponent’s ties to lobbyists. Blunt, who spent 13 years in the House of Representatives before winning a Senate seat in 2010, seemed a clear victor in a safe bid for re-election until Kander’s anti-establishment pro-gun platform rocked the state.

Now, the two are locked in a dead heat race with each polling at 44 percent, according to an Emerson College poll conducted last week.

Many Republican and red-leaning states have worried how Donald Trump’s volatile campaign would affect Senate races and the state’s electoral college votes. Some, like Sen. Pat Toomey (R) of Pennsylvania and Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R) of New Hampshire, have tried to avoid taking a hard stance on Mr. Trump or disavowing his candidacy entirely in an attempt to appeal to moderate voters. But In Missouri, a different, and odd, set of circumstances has unfolded.

While Blunt hasn’t come out as the most avid of Trump supporters, he has stood by the candidate through several blunders that drove other GOP personalities away. Maintaining that support in Missouri, a state Trump is projected to win, should have all but guaranteed Blunt a victory. But as more Missouri voters have found favor with Trump’s outsider appeal, Kander has exploited Blunt’s history as a career politician and cited how that clashes with Trump’s rhetoric. That argument might just be enough to allow him, as a Democrat, to take the majority of votes in a state slated to elect Trump.

“Really Donald Trump’s entire message is that people like Sen. Blunt are the problem,” Kander said before a recent rally in Kansas City. “Washington’s broken and we’re not going to change Washington until we change the people we send there, and here in Missouri folks recognize that and they’re looking for a new generation of leadership.”

Blunt has recently had to come to terms with his opponent’s state-wide appeal and validity as a challenger.

“It is not easy in our state,” he said. “We’re in a fight. It’s one we can win but nobody needs to take anything for granted here.”

With all of the races entering the home stretch, Democrats and Republicans are narrowing their Senate focuses on these six. Democrats are pouring leftover funds into campaign ads in the top races, while Republicans are continuing to grapple with Trump’s candidacy and varying voter perception of the real estate mogul across the nation.

“In most cases Trump is responsible,” for uncertainty in Republican races, Jennifer Duffy, senior editor for The Cook Political Report, told the Times. “But there are quirky things going on.”

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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