WASHINGTON • Unlike two years ago, when Missouri had one of the most-watched U.S. Senate races in the country, this November will be relatively quiet on the state’s congressional election front.
Although a lot can happen in seven months, all eight of Missouri’s members of Congress are expected to hold their seats.
But Missourians still have much at stake in the outcome of 2014 elections elsewhere. Control of the U.S. Senate is in play, due to a unique combination of geography and politics. And the result of the battle for Senate control will have an important effect on the power and influence of Missouri’s two senators, Republican Roy Blunt and Democrat Claire McCaskill.
President Barack Obama’s signature health care reform has fallen in popularity during a tumultuous rollout. In polls, his popularity has reached new lows. And nonpresidential elections in the sixth year of a presidency often turn into a referendum on the president.
All of these factors — plus the unique configuration of states with the most competitive Senate races this year — have increased Republican Senate takeover odds. Republicans need to gain six seats to take control. Currently, 13 are considered the most competitive, and 11 are held by Democrats.
“The Senate is a jump ball and the environment is a bad one for Democrats,” said Jennifer Duffy, who handicaps Senate races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, which has rated the 13 most competitive states. “The macro (issues) stuff is not going to surprise you. It is health care and Obama.”
If Democrats hold the Senate, McCaskill’s rising seniority could boost her profile on issues like the one she became embroiled in this past week: General Motors and its troubled ignition systems that has led to 2.6 million recalls. On Wednesday, she used her chairmanship of a Commerce subcommittee to call a hearing that grabbed headlines with her claim that a “culture of cover-up” reigned at GM. With her party out of power, she would lose control of that consumer protection, product safety and insurance platform.
If Republicans take control, Blunt’s position as fifth-in-line in Republican Senate leadership would give him more power to shape the legislative agenda. He could even move up in leadership if Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., loses a tough re-election challenge, whether or not the GOP wrests control of the Senate in November.
“Whether or not Republicans control the Senate is a big deal for Blunt and for Missouri and the two senators,” said Stuart Rothenberg, editor of the Rothenberg Political Report. “Obviously it matters who is in control of the Senate and how much influence you have, and certainly Blunt is in the leadership.”
McCaskill’s stake in the election is different from Blunt’s, Rothenberg said. She has used her investigative oversight role on the Senate Commerce committee to plant flags on issues of national importance, such as sexual assault in the military. Concurrently, she is media savvy and has been able to draw a lot of attention to the issues she has championed, Rothenberg said.
“She is all over television,” he said.
The difference in position and style helps explain why Missouri’s two senators have different plans in this year’s election.
McCaskill said she will actively campaign for and raise money for fellow senators, particularly in states that, like Missouri, did not vote for Obama in 2012. She said she has already given advice to Sens. Mark Pryor, D-Ark.; Mark Begich, D-Alaska; Mary Landrieu, D-La.; and Kay Hagen, D-N.C. All are on handicappers’ endangered lists.
“They should be — and are — stressing that it’s the moderates in the Senate who get things done, because it’s the moderates who forge compromise, instead of standing on opposite sides of the room yelling at each other,” McCaskill said.
Blunt said he’ll do some campaigning for fellow Republicans, but he also is thinking about shaping a Republican legislative and message strategy about what Republicans would do if they did regain the Senate.
“A challenge for a Republican House and a Republican Senate is the ability to send the message to the country that the Republicans are willing to govern, not just willing to complain,” Blunt said. “And I think we will meet that challenge.”
In the meantime, he said, “the president’s health care law and the view of government that it symbolizes, that government can make decisions for people and for families better than they can make for themselves, is going to be the overriding issue between now and November, unless some foreign policy or other issue develops.”
But McCaskill said news last week that 7 million people signed up for insurance under the new law could mark a turning point for both its success and the politics of the issue for Democrats.
She acknowledged that it is a “challenging year” for her party, but said that because Republicans have “put all their eggs in the Obamacare basket,” they could suffer a backlash from “more and more people realizing that the sky is not falling.
“At some point,” McCaskill said, referring to Republican attacks on health care reform, “(Democrats) may actually be able claim Chicken Little.”
Her party’s electoral peril comes in part because seven pivotal Senate elections are taking place in smaller states that Obama lost in his own re-election campaign in 2012. Besides the four earlier mentioned, West Virginia, South Dakota and Montana all will be replacing Democrats who aren’t seeking re-election.
In four states that Obama won — Michigan, Iowa, Colorado, and New Hampshire — Democrats face tough retention challenges. Only two Republican-held seats — Georgia and Kentucky — are considered to be competitive.
McCaskill predicted that if Republicans take the Senate, the last two years of Obama’s presidency could be even more tumultuous, politically and policywise, than his first six.
“You would have a president with a Congress that was completely opposed to his priorities and frankly opposed to him,” she said. “So the next few years pending the presidential election (of 2016) would be a long walk through a very hot and barren desert.”
But Rep. Ann Wagner, R-Mo., suggested that a Congress totally controlled by her party could open doors to unexpected compromises, similar to what happened the last time a Democratic president, Bill Clinton, faced a GOP Congress. In the mid-1990s, Clinton and the Newt Gingrich-Bob Dole-led Republicans cut historic deals on trade, welfare reform and budget discipline that led to a temporary federal surplus.
“During the Clinton administration I think of NAFTA and welfare reform, things that were able to get done on a bipartisan basis with a Democrat President and Republican Congress,” Wagner said.
But the unity wasn’t universal: Clinton also was impeached by that Republican House and came within six votes of being removed from office in the Republican Senate.