By Eli Yokley
Summer has arrived and so has the heat, especially in some of the state’s top political campaigns.
Missouri Democrats and Republicans wrapped up their statewide conventions in recent weeks. They selected delegates to the national conventions for President Barack Obama and Republican hopeful Mitt Romney. But the undercurrent at both conventions focused on the races lower on the ticket. Democrats will be defending some statewide officials, including Gov. Jay Nixon and U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, one of the most targeted senators in the country this year.
McCaskill’s principal Republican opponents — Sarah Steelman, John Brunner and Todd Akin — are spending significant amounts of time working up their conservative base in the long primary campaign. At the state Republican convention earlier this month, the three contenders touted their opposition to the president’s health care law, more federal regulation and public debt.
Off stage, however, the three are beginning to clash on the issue of their records. Steelman, a former state senator and treasurer, and Akin, a former state lawmaker turned congressman, are running on their experience in government. Brunner, a St. Louis businessman and first-time candidate, is running on his experience in the private sector.
Brunner has begun to use the legislative records against his two rivals, airing TV ads critical of votes they took in favor of debt spending. Akin and Steelman both deny the accusation, and Steelman has turned the issue around, criticizing Brunner’s use of debt during his time in business.
The fuss over the ad shows that the candidates are seeking to prove their own conservative bona fides to critical primary voters, who are concentrated strongly in Southwest Missouri. In past statewide Republican primaries, Southwest Missouri has been a reliable predictor of the statewide winner.
John Putnam, chairman of the Jasper County Republicans, said the region’s historical importance will cause the candidates to expend significant resources in the region.
“Southwest Missouri is disproportionately involved and critically important for the candidates,” Putnam said, adding that he expects increased visits from the campaigns and a barrage of spending on advertisements.
Already, the campaigns have hit the TV screens in the region. Brunner has been running ads in Joplin contrasting McCaskill with himself since January, and for nearly a year, outside groups such as the Republican super PAC American Crossroads have run ads targeting conservative voters in the region.
The strategy, campaign experts explain, is straightforward: Vie for support where you can be competitive, and motivate the base in Southwest Missouri. For Republicans, especially after the August primary election, every vote in their favor from Southwest Missouri is a vote that cancels out a Democratic vote in the state’s Democratic strongholds of Kansas City and St. Louis.
McCaskill and Nixon, running against their conservative rivals as “Missouri moderates,” will be opening campaign offices, running their own ads and visiting the Southwest region of the state.
“There’s not a nook or cranny of the state that I don’t think is important,” McCaskill said in an interview.
“I am not naive. I realize that Southwest Missouri has not been the strongest place to get votes for people in my party, but I think in this particular election, we may surprise people.”
On the campaign trail, McCaskill is criticizing her rivals for their support of allowing future Medicare plans to be placed in the private market, and of removing federal involvement in the student loan industry. She says those issues show stark contrast, and she hopes they can draw the attention of independent voters.
Democrats hope that significant attention on Southwest Missouri, and in areas in general that are typically not thought of as Democratic strongholds, will be key to chipping away at strong GOP margins statewide.
“A strong Democratic performance in Southwest Missouri goes a long way toward helping elect and re-elect Democratic candidates statewide,” said Jordan Overstreet, executive director of the Southwest Missouri Democrats.
On the Web
Jasper County Republicans have a website at www.jascomogop.com.
The Newton County Republican Central Committee’s website is www.newtoncountyrepublicans.org, and the group also is on Facebook.
Democrats in Jasper and Newton counties have a new home on the Internet. The website is www.swmodems.org.