TOPICS > Politics

Missouri Senate Race Garners Nationwide Attention

October 31, 2006 at 3:35 PM EDT

KWAME HOLMAN: With a week to go, freshman Republican Senator Jim Talent and his Democratic challenger, Claire McCaskill, find themselves roughly in the same spot they’ve been in all year: a dead heat.

According to two major polls released in recent days, the candidates are statistically tied. Despite a combined $10 million spent on the Missouri airwaves…

AD ANNOUNCER: Does that sound like Jim Talent is standing up for Missouri values?

AD ANNOUNCER: Claire McCaskill’s nursing home story really gets troubling.

KWAME HOLMAN: … and even with big-name endorsements for each candidate, neither has been able to gain a substantial advantage.

Both are well-known and have strong statewide political operations. Talent spent eight years in the Missouri Statehouse and another eight in the U.S. House, representing the St. Louis area. McCaskill, currently the state auditor, has spent 20 years in Missouri politics and narrowly lost the race for governor two years ago.

When we talked with the candidates in August, Talent was aware of the anti-incumbent feeling this year and admitted that something in Washington wasn’t working.

SEN. JIM TALENT (R), Missouri: Well, my view is that people are concerned that the system in Washington is not responding to them, that neither party’s establishment is, and they want somebody who will stand up for them and their values and make the system work for them.

And I encourage them in that view. I think they should want that, and I have tried to offer that on a bunch of issues: methamphetamine, renewable fuels, prescription drugs for seniors. I said I was going to work on those things, and I did.

KWAME HOLMAN: McCaskill’s point was that Talent voted with President Bush 91 percent of the time and said Missourians are not being heard in Washington.

CLAIRE MCCASKILL (D), Candidate for Missouri Senate: It’s about people who really feel like they’re being left out of the decision-making process, people who really don’t feel like they’ve got a voice anymore.

As they watch these CEO salaries climb, as they look at no-bid contracts, as they see the consolidation of industries to the point that we have no competition in our economy, Missourians are getting a sense of unease that this thing has gotten way too weighted to one side. And I think this is really about me bringing a message of balance and independence.

KWAME HOLMAN: Both candidates hope their positions on two closely watched ballot initiatives — one to increase the minimum wage and another to encourage stem cell research — will energize turnout at the polls. Two Missouri political consultants, Roy Temple, a Democrat, and Jeff Roe, a Republican, have been gauging voter enthusiasm on their respective blogs.

ROY TEMPLE, Blogger, “Fired Up Missouri”: I think the general public is aware that Republicans control the Congress, Republicans control the White House. They are not satisfied with the way things are going, and they want change. And so change, I think in the minds of most voters, is going to be turning to an alternative to the Republicans.

KWAME HOLMAN: Jeff Roe predicted Senator Talent will prevail, despite the poor political climate for Republicans.

JEFF ROE, Blogger, “Take Two”: If he was running 2002 or 2004, or even 2008, I think it would be an easier time to be on the ballot. But 2006 is tricky because of that confluence of events, the war, the president’s approval ratings, and just where our country really is right now economically and in the worldwide affairs.

KWAME HOLMAN: Both Talent and McCaskill will need help next Tuesday from independent voters, who make up a substantial 36 percent of Missouri’s electorate.

Still a close race

Jeff Roe
Republican consultant
As people realize that this is not a choice between George Bush and an unnamed Democrat but actually Jim Talent versus Claire McCaskill, they'll eventually make that choice based on morals, and values, and honesty.

JIM LEHRER: And to Margaret Warner.

MARGARET WARNER: And joining us now are the two political strategists and bloggers we talked to in Missouri last August. The Republican, Jeff Roe, writes a Missouri-based blog called "Take Two." The Democrat, Roy Temple, writes a blog called "Fired Up Missouri."

And welcome to you both.

Jeff Roe, let me begin with you. Do you think the race is as close as all of the polls are suggesting it is? And if so, why, after all these months of campaigning?

JEFF ROE: Well, I think we have two well-defined, really incumbents -- one at the state level, and one at the federal level -- and Missouri has been a bellwether state really from its existence. It typically nominates the eventual president of the United States. And as Missouri goes, so goes the country, and I think we're seeing that exactly here today.

MARGARET WARNER: What's your take on why it's so close?

ROY TEMPLE: Well, I think, just as Jeff said, Missouri has a history of being a bellwether state. But, look, this is a remarkably difficult year for Republicans, and if, in fact, Missouri is reflective of the national trend this year, Republicans are going to be in pretty difficult straits on Election Day.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, is -- staying with you for a minute, Roy Temple -- is the anti-Iraq war, the anti-Washington, the criticism of President Bush, that whole -- all of those sentiments that seem to be driving a lot of other races, are they driving this one to the same degree?

ROY TEMPLE: Yes, I think so. I think Missourians know that we're off on the wrong track in the country. We have a policy in Iraq that's made us less safe when it comes to fighting terrorism.

They know that we've got problems, like a drug plan that benefits the pharmaceutical companies, not the seniors. And so those issues are what' sort of driving voter anxiety. And now Senator Talent is left in a position of trying to defend his actions over the last four years, and he's having a very difficult time doing so.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Jeff Roe, do you agree? Do you think those sentiments are strong? And, if so, then why hasn't Claire McCaskill been able to make the sale?

JEFF ROE: Well, we have come through probably the toughest political climate in modern-day politics in Republicans, and she's still down in the polls. And as the mood of the electorate comes back, as people realize that this is not a choice between George Bush and an unnamed Democrat but actually Jim Talent versus Claire McCaskill, they'll eventually make that choice based on morals, and values, and honesty. And those are issues that Republicans dominate on the political landscape.

President Bush's role

Roy Temple
Democratic consultant
I think it's a sign of the state of the campaign that the president needs to spend his time there in the final hours of the campaign for someone who should be in good shape.

MARGARET WARNER: Jeff, the president is coming in later for Mr. Talent. Where is the president's popularity in Missouri? Is that risky for him?

JEFF ROE: I think this political climate is obviously -- the president in any midterm election, in a second term of the presidency, people are looking to see who the next leader will be. But this election will be held, one, in Branson, Missouri, not in Baghdad, and the president has little to do with what happens in Branson, except to motivate our base.

And that's exactly what he's going to come in and do in the 72-hour program. The Republicans traditionally run well, as we I.D. our voters and turn them out at the polls. It's a huge lift of the spirits of Republicans in Missouri, and it will have a dramatic effect on Election Day.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you agree that the president can actually be an asset with Republican voters in Missouri?

ROY TEMPLE: Well, I think it's a mark of the weakness of Jim Talent's campaign that the president of the United States is going to have to spend his time propping his campaign up here in the final hours of the election, but I'm not surprised that the president is willing to do so, because every time the president has needed Jim Talent, Jim Talent has done exactly what the president told him to do, even when it was decidedly against the interests of Missouri voters.

So I'm not surprised the president is willing to do it. I think it's a sign of the state of the campaign that the president needs to spend his time there in the final hours of the campaign for someone who should be in good shape.

Minimum wage, stem cells

Jeff Roe
Republican consultant
You have to remember: This is a Missouri election. It has nothing to do with national politics from a turnout scale.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me ask you both about the two ballot measures, both of which were originally expected to help Claire McCaskill. One is raising the minimum wage, and the other is making legal or allowing to be legal any kind of stem cell research that is federally approved, as well.

Beginning with you, are those turning out to be the help to Claire McCaskill that she hoped?

ROY TEMPLE: Yes, I believe they are. One of the challenges in a non-presidential year is that there are a large number of Democratic and progressive voters that don't turn out except in presidential election years.

I think both the stem cell initiative and the minimum wage issue are going to do things that stimulate those voters to get out and participate in this election that perhaps the Senate race alone would not. And from the information that I've been looking at, the intensity -- though the noise is often on the side of the anti-stem cell crowd, the intensity among voters is among those who support it. And that correlates strongly to support for Claire McCaskill.

So I think it will be a net benefit to her, but it won't be without a great deal of noise and fury.

MARGARET WARNER: Jeff Roe, how do you think those two ballot initiatives are playing into the Senate race?

JEFF ROE: Well, in Missouri, the Republican Party has really been built on small businesses and small towns around Missouri and traditional value conservatives. And both those ballot issues play well into Jim's hands in this election.

We have the minimum wage, which in a very short time will be over $10 an hour. That's excessive by any stretch of the imagination, and the small business owners and the people employed there realize that. They will be turned out in that effort.

In addition, the stem cell initiative and how that has become really a moral battleground -- you know, we're still in the Bible belt. And when turnout comes on Election Day, that will provide the inspiration, unlike around the nation, that we really need to turn out in Missouri.

You have to remember: This is a Missouri election. It has nothing to do with national politics from a turnout scale. It will have very motivated small business owners, very motivated moral and value voters, and those folks will turn out on Election Day based on those two issues, which can only help Jim Talent.

MARGARET WARNER: What about that? Could stem cell actually be an energizing issue for the social and religious conservatives?

ROY TEMPLE: Oh, without a doubt there's some sliver of the electorate for whom that will be a strongly motivating issue, but there's a larger sliver of the electorate on the other side of the issue.

I mean, you know, I think the anti-stem cell folks overplayed their hand. I mean, they've had Alan Keyes in churches comparing stem cell research to Nazi experimentation. They've run billboards and ads suggesting that we'll have egg farms where women's eggs will be harvested and sold if we pass the stem cell initiative.

I think fair-minded voters know that's not what Amendment 2 is about. And so I think that will, in fact, turn off a great deal of voters that might have been available to Republicans who will now be turned off and might be likely to cross the line and vote for Claire McCaskill.

Negative ads

Roy Temple
Democratic consultant
We've had some tough election contests in Missouri history. The John Ashcroft-Mel Carnahan race was no cakewalk, but this race pales in comparison, when you look at how savagely negative Jim Talent has been in this race.

MARGARET WARNER: Jeff, finally, the tone of this campaign. As you've said, these are two seasoned veterans. They've never run against each other. What has the tone and tenor been like?

JEFF ROE: Well, I think that both people, when they both filed for office, particularly the partisans on each side, understood where both candidates stood on most of the issues. So, without a doubt, this campaign has provided an opportunity to examine both candidates' records.

And in Missouri, elections are really based on God, guns, and babies. And we have a candidate who's against -- I'm sorry, Claire McCaskill is for gay marriage. She's for partial birth abortion. And she's against concealed weapons. And that's 0 for 3, and in Missouri that's not a good recipe, particularly when you have some of those exact type of issues on the ballot to motivate people for turnout.

MARGARET WARNER: But my question is: Is Jim Talent saying things like that? How negative is this campaign?

JEFF ROE: Well, I don't know if it's negative or not, but they have definitely contrasted each other's positions, and they've definitely gotten into the dynamics of each person's career. And they've done that with a huge amount of resources.

Both sides have been well-funded, Claire McCaskill, aided by her own loan, after pledging not to do so. So I guess $10 million wasn't quite enough. She had to loan hundreds of thousands of her own dollars to the campaign to promote that, as well.

MARGARET WARNER: Roy Temple, the tenor of the campaign?

ROY TEMPLE: Well, to answer your question, this has been the most savagely negative campaign in Missouri's history on the part of Senator Jim Talent. And many of his vicious personal attacks on Claire McCaskill have been beneath the dignity of a United States senator from Missouri.

He has savaged her. He started out by running ads suggesting that it doesn't matter if you're red or blue, Democrat or Republican. He probably should have said, "By the time I'm done with her, I'm going to see that she's black and blue," because he has savagely attacked her on a personal basis, and it's because he can't defend his record of getting us into an Iraq war that he didn't adequately ask the tough questions for.

He didn't look out for seniors when it came time to give them a prescription drug benefit that benefited them, so he's have to be personally, savagely negative.

And we've had some tough election contests in Missouri history. The John Ashcroft-Mel Carnahan race was no cakewalk, but this race pales in comparison, when you look at how savagely negative Jim Talent has been in this race.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, we'll be watching. Thank you both very much.

ROY TEMPLE: Thank you.