Se­nate con­trol may rest on race in GOP-friendly Mis­souri

Daily Freeman (Kingston, NY) - - NATION + WORLD - By Erica Werner AP Con­gres­sional Cor­re­spon­dent

The clamor for change fu­el­ing Repub­li­can Don­ald Trump’s pres­i­den­tial cam­paign may help a lit­tle-known Demo­crat upset a pow­er­ful GOP se­na­tor in red-state Mis­souri on Elec­tion Day. And with just a hand­ful of com­pet­i­tive races around the coun­try, the out­come in Mis­souri could help de­ter­mine con­trol of the Se­nate.

The con­test be­tween Mis­souri’s sec­re­tary of state, Demo­crat Ja­son Kan­der, and Sen. Roy Blunt did not start out high on ei­ther party’s list of com­pet­i­tive Se­nate races in a state Trump is likely to win. But Kan­der, a 35-year-old vet­eran, has proved to be a smart and ag­gres­sive cam­paigner, chal­leng­ing Blunt’s at­tempts to brand him a lib­eral by run­ning an ad in which he as­sem­bles an AR-15 ri­fle blind­folded and de­scribes his com­bat ser­vice.

Kan­der also has sought, un­apolo­get­i­cally, to ex­ploit the out­sider mood that’s pro­pelled Trump to the fore, crit­i­ciz­ing the 66-year-old Blunt as a Wash­ing­ton in­sider who is part of a failed sys­tem.

“Re­ally Don­ald Trump’s en­tire mes­sage is that peo­ple like Sen. Blunt are the prob­lem,” Kan­der said be­fore a re­cent rally in Kansas City where Mas­sachusetts Sen. El­iz­a­beth War­ren ap­peared on his be­half.

“Wash­ing­ton’s bro­ken and we’re not go­ing to change Wash­ing­ton un­til we change the peo­ple we send there,” Kan­der added, “and here in Mis­souri folks rec­og­nize that and they’re look­ing for a new gen­er­a­tion of lead­er­ship.”

Mis­souri is one of three GOP-friendly states, along with North Carolina and In­di­ana, that have emerged as top bat­tle­grounds as Democrats fight to gain a Se­nate ma­jor­ity. Democrats need to pick up five seats to ac­com­plish that, or four if they hang onto con­trol of the White House, be­cause the vice pres­i­dent casts tie-break­ing votes in the Se­nate.

Trump’s slide in the polls has sparked grow­ing fears among Repub­li­cans that he could cost them ma­jori­ties in the Se­nate and even the House. Yet op­er­a­tives on both sides say the top Se­nate races re­main very close, and thus far, at least, GOP can­di­dates have not cratered in the polls as a re­sult of Trump’s prob­lems.

Blunt coun­ters Kan­der’s at­tacks by ty­ing the Demo­crat to Hil­lary Clin­ton, who is highly un­pop­u­lar in the state, and paint­ing him as too lib­eral. Blunt’s ads de­scribe the “Clin­tonKan­der agenda” and they hit Kan­der for sup­port­ing Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s health care law and poli­cies on im­mi­gra­tion and taxes.

An ad re­leased Satur­day in sup­port of Blunt’s cam­paign goes even fur­ther, por­tray­ing Clin­ton and Kan­der as iden­ti­cal on is­sues such as lib­eral Supreme Court jus­tices. The ad by the Se­nate Lead­er­ship Fund ac­knowl­edges Clin­ton is likely to be elected, and ar­gues: “One Hil­lary in Wash­ing­ton would be bad enough. Re­ject Ja­son Kan­der.”

An ad on the air for GOP Sen. Kelly Ay­otte in New Hamp­shire con­tains a sim­i­lar mes­sage. The strat­egy of ar­gu­ing in fa­vor of GOP con­gres­sional can­di­dates as a check against a Pres­i­dent Clin­ton may be­come wide­spread if Trump’s loss looks in­evitable.

“This is re­ally an im­por­tant time. You look at how much is at stake,” Blunt, who backs Trump, said at a rally in the St. Louis sub­urb of O’Fal­lon. “We’re go­ing to live with this for a long time.”

Blunt served seven terms in the House be­fore his elec­tion to the Se­nate in 2010, and is a mem­ber of the Se­nate GOP lead­er­ship. Yet he seemed to be caught un­awares in a volatile elec­tion year in which Mis­souri vot­ers also nom­i­nated a Repub­li­can can­di­date for gov­er­nor who’s a young out­sider with lit­tle po­lit­i­cal ex­pe­ri­ence.

In re­cent weeks Blunt’s sag­ging poll num­bers have forced GOP cam­paign com­mit­tees to start spend­ing mil­lions to bail him out, to the an­noy­ance of some Repub­li­cans. And now Blunt is talk­ing like he’s the un­der­dog.

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

Repub­li­cans have tried all year to in­su­late their Se­nate can­di­dates from dis­rup­tions at the top of the ticket, run­ning races fo­cused on lo­cal is­sues and try­ing to avoid get­ting drawn into the con­tro­versy of the day with Trump. But as Trump’s poll num­bers worsen with the elec­tion just over two weeks away, the lim­its of that strat­egy may start to show.

Democrats have a fi­nan­cial ad­van­tage go­ing into the end stretch and in­tend to use it in part by run­ning more ads that tie GOP in­cum­bents and can­di­dates to Trump. As Clin­ton pulls away from Trump na­tion­ally, that is free­ing up even more money for Demo­cratic can­di­dates in the top Se­nate races: New Hamp­shire, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, In­di­ana, Mis­souri and Ne­vada. Repub­li­cans have es­sen­tially given up on in­cum­bents in Illi­nois and Wis­con­sin, while GOP Sens. John McCain in Ari­zona and Rob Port­man in Ohio are con­sid­ered to be safe.

Sen. Marco Ru­bio of Florida is also look­ing strong, though for him and other Repub­li­cans there is prob­a­bly a limit to how far they can out­run Trump if the mogul goes down to a ma­jor loss.

Most con­cern­ing to Repub­li­cans of late is Trump’s rhetoric about the elec­tion be­ing “rigged,” which some fear could keep GOP vot­ers from coming out to the polls.

“If his sup­port­ers ac­tu­ally think the elec­tion is ‘rigged’ than you have to won­der if they will think it’s worth coming out to vote,” said Brian Walsh a GOP con­sul­tant and for­mer of­fi­cial at the Na­tional Repub­li­can Sen­a­to­rial Com­mit­tee. “And that could have real con­se­quences down bal­lot be­cause we need ev­ery­one on the GOP side to vote.” As­so­ci­ated Press writer Jim Sal­ter in O’Fal­lon, Mis­souri, con­trib­uted to this re­port.

MOLLY RI­LEY — THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo. speaks dur­ing a news con­fer­ence on Capi­tol Hill in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., in Fe­bru­ary 2015.

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