On the Trail: Why Kander's rise in the polls shouldn't be that shocking

Oct 17, 2016
Originally published on October 22, 2016 5:40 pm

In the humble opinions of national pundits that monitor congressional races, Jason Kander pretty much came out nowhere to get on their national radar.

The Washington Post, Roll Call and Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball recently declared that Missouri’s U.S. Senate race was a “toss-up.” And these prognosticators, in general, are very surprised that Kander made the race close. For instance: When Roll Call ranked Kander as the best Senate challenger of the 2016 cycle, the publication called the development “remarkable” for a race “that most analysts considered a second-tier contest when the summer began.”

While this reporter never thought that Kander was a shoo-in, I never bought into the idea that Missouri’s Senate race was “safe” for the Republicans. And that’s no disrespect for U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, who is one of Missouri’s shrewdest political figures. It’s more about how Missouri is structured politically.

Sure, it’s easy to look at Mitt Romney’s 2012 performance or the composition of the Missouri General Assembly and subsequently describe Missouri as an impenetrable bright-red fortress. But statewide races here tend to be competitive – especially in presidential years when Democratic turnout expands dramatically. Under the right circumstances, Democratic candidates like Kander can be quite viable. Otherwise, why are most of Missouri’s statewide officials Democrats? 

But Missouri’s propensity to elect statewide Democrats isn’t the only reason Kander’s emergence isn’t exactly revelatory:

  • Kander, a historically prolific fundraiser, has been able to keep financial pace with Blunt. And that's not much of a surprise: Most people who win statewide office in Missouri have to have an advanced sense of how to rake in money to succeed.
  • Republicans happened to nominate a presidential candidate that’s not exactly popular with a slew of key demographics. And Republican statewide candidates in Missouri tend not to do that well in a soured national environment.
  • U.S. Senate contests in Ohio, Florida, Wisconsin and Illinois didn’t turn out to be as competitive as previously thought. And that allowed more national resources (money) to shift to Missouri, which in turn helped someone like Kander.

That last bullet point is particularly crucial. One of the unfortunate realities of running for Congress is that challengers are often dead on arrival without support from third party groups like the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee or the National Republican Senatorial Committee. And groups like the DSCC have bought into Kander’s candidacy with gusto, spending millions of dollars on television ads attacking Blunt. (And conversely, third-party groups are also attacking Kander.)

Don’t lose my number

So why did national prognosticators hesitate to see Missouri’s Senate race as competitive? 

Kyle Kondik of Larry Sabato’s Crystal cites a number of factors: The difficulty to unseat incumbents without significant scandals; early polling showing Blunt ahead; and Missouri’s status as a relatively sure thing for a Republican presidential contender.

Still, Missouri’s U.S. Senate races have defied all of those variables before. Challengers beat incumbents in 2002 and 2006. And in 2012, Democrats managed to win U.S. Senate seats in at least four states that Romney won – including Missouri.

(Republican Todd Akin hastened his landslide loss to U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill’s with his “legitimate rape” comments. And Akin’s demise likely helped Kander win his 2012 secretary of state’s contest – an eerily similar dynamic to what’s happening in his 2016 contest.)

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“I would say that we have six toss-ups in the Senate: Nevada is the one Democratic-held seat, and then New Hampshire, Indiana, Missouri, Pennsylvania and North Carolina,” Kondik said. “I think of those six, Republicans still probably have the best chance in Missouri, just because of the presidential factor and the fact that Blunt is an incumbent. But I think a lot of people have been impressed with the race that Kander has run.”

Kondik said if Kander is going to win, he’ll have to “get some of that crossover vote” that Gov. Jay Nixon and McCaskill received in 2012. When he ran against Republican Shane Schoeller in 2012, Kander prevailed in a collection of urban and suburban counties – as well as a few rural ones.

Kander also narrowly won Jefferson County in 2012, a traditionally Democratic county that many GOP activists are hoping to turn bright red this November. If Kander can’t replicate his 2012 performance there against Blunt, he may need to get larger of voters in urban and suburban counties or hold down Blunt’s margins in rural Missouri.

'Known from the beginning'

Before chatting with a group of veterans at a Troy coffee shop last week, Kander himself was asked about amount of surprise national political watchers expressed about his battle against Blunt.

Needless to say, Kander didn’t share in the pundits’ disbelief.

“I’ve known from the beginning that this was going to be a close race,” Kander said. “If you look at our message from the very beginning of this campaign, my announcement video, it is the exact same message that we have right now. It hasn’t changed at all. Because it’s how I feel. And I’ve known from the beginning that’s also how Missourians feel. So I’ve known all along that as we had the opportunity to get around the state and talk to more people and get message out, then the race was going to get really close.”

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And Republicans, too, aren’t shocked.

“Look, this is a state where, at least in statewide races, it’s very competitive between both parties. So I don’t think it’s really any surprise that the race is competitive,” said House Speaker Todd Richardson, R-Poplar Bluff. “I expect that Sen. Blunt is going to prevail at the end of the day. And that’s because he’s got a message that’s more in line with where voters are: It’s a pro-life, pro-gun, pro-growth message. And when Secretary Kander has to run in same party as Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, I think he’s got an uphill battle in Missouri.”

Richardson may be onto something: Had Akin not imploded in 2012, it’s possible that the rest of the GOP ticket may have benefited from Romney’s nine-point victory in Missouri. If GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump is able to recover enough and win the Show Me State by a significant margin, that may end up helping people like Blunt.

If Trump flops in Missouri though, politicos in Missouri and elsewhere may be furiously refreshing the secretary of state’s website late into Election Night to see the thrilling conclusion to the Kander-Blunt contest.

On the Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads from the world of Missouri politics.

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