WASHINGTON • A surprise ending to a spirited primary sounded the opening bell for a general election campaign that will thrust Missouri into the limelight in a battle to control the U.S. Senate at a critical time in Congress.
In winning the nomination to challenge Sen. Claire McCaskill, U.S. Rep. Todd Akin surged in the waning days of the campaign and kept intact this season's trend of the most conservative candidates winning Republican primaries across the country.
Akin's victory could change the dynamic in a general election battle in which McCaskill has been cast as the most vulnerable Democrat in the Senate.
McCaskill still may be the underdog because of her ties to President Barack Obama. But in Akin, among the most conservative members of Congress and a politician who defends earmarks, she faces a candidate with whom she can draw stark contrasts.
"We have consistently found McCaskill to be one of the most unpopular senators in the country. But the Republican task becomes more difficult with an Akin victory," said Tom Jensen, whose Democratic-aligned Public Policy Polling firm detected Akin's surge in polling over the weekend.
While businessman John Brunner's considerable spending in the Senate primary failed to land him a win over Akin, another wealthy businessman, Dave Spence, will still be a factor in November. Spence's victory in the gubernatorial primary assured that Missourians will hear a refrain similar to that of the presidential election: how a business leader can be a tonic for the sputtering economy.
Spence spent heavily from a fortune earned in the plastics business to become the GOP candidate against Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon, a potentially difficult challenge given Nixon's centrist politics.
Nixon's strategy of weighing in late or not at all on controversial matters and shying away from battles in the Republican-held Legislature has minimized openings for Spence.
Nonetheless, Nixon could give fuel to Spence's argument that career politicians are failing, as Spence asserted in a statement on election night: "The people of Missouri deserve a true leader who will do what's in the best interest of all of our citizens, not what's best for his (Nixon's) political future."
Missouri's primary also commanded attention because it assured the departure from Congress of a prominent Democratic name. In a highly charged St. Louis primary, William Lacy Clay prevailed against fellow Rep. Russ Carnahan after a new GOP-drawn map thrust scions of two well-known Democrats into a single district.
Missouri's primary election was one of four across the country this month that could go a long way toward determining control of the Senate by deciding which candidates will appear on the ballot. Wisconsin and Connecticut will choose Senate candidates next Tuesday; Arizona on Aug. 28.
Republicans need a net gain of four seats to take control of the Senate next year, when Congress may no longer be able to avoid consequential decisions about reducing debt, sharing the tax burden and, perhaps, scrapping major elements of the new health insurance law, which has vexed McCaskill and other Democrats standing for re-election.
In nearly every GOP primary this year, the Senate candidate positioned farthest to the right has captured the nomination. That was the case last week in Texas, in Nebraska in May when Deb Fischer defeated an establishment Republican, and in Indiana in May when Richard Mourdock ended the political career of veteran Sen. Richard Lugar.
McCaskill's predicament heading into the fall campaign was reflected in a recent Post-Dispatch/News 4 poll by Mason-Dixon Polling & Research, showing all the top GOP candidates defeating her.
"No matter who wins, she's clearly in trouble," said Mason-Dixon pollster Brad Coker.
The poll also showed that Obama has a significantly lower favorability rating in Missouri — 39 percent — than nationally, where voters are about evenly split on their ratings of the president. Likewise, surveys show that the unpopularity of the Affordable Health Care Act is proving to be a drag on Democratic prospects in Missouri, from the president's on down.
While Missouri's Senate race will draw wide attention in the fall campaign, the state is unlikely to come up in discussions of battleground areas for the presidential race.
Neither the Obama nor Mitt Romney campaigns have included Missouri in their summer ad programs and, unlike 2008, the White House hopefuls will spend little or no time in St. Louis, Kansas City and areas in between.
"Missouri has moved from being a purple state toward becoming a red state," said Coker, who has polled Missouri races since 1988. "Things evolve and change."