By all accounts, Missouri should be fertile territory for the Republican Party to win both a Senate seat and the governor’s mansion in 2012. After all, it was basically the only swing state President Obama lost in 2008, and his approval rating there is just plain awful at the moment.
The problem for Republicans has been finding someone — anyone — who is up to the task.
Republicans in the Show Me State have not landed top-tier candidates in either the Senate or governor’s race, and some in the party worry that their ability to win these vulnerable seats is being severely compromised by lackluster fields of candidates.
Those close to the state’s GOP politics say that the problem is hard to explain with mere words.
“I can only describe to you orally how bad our Senate candidates are,” one dismayed Missouri Republican wrote to The Fix in an e-mail.
In the third fundraising quarter, neither of the two declared Senate candidates — former state treasurer Sarah Steelman nor Rep. Todd Akin — raised more than $300,000 from donors. In fact, Steelman raised less than $100,000. That’s an unheard-of number for anyone who could be considered a top-flight candidate, and Steelman had to self-fund $400,000 to remain financially viable.
Steelman’s and Akin’s combined fundraising total was less than one of the state’s candidates for U.S. House — former Republican National Committee official Ann Wagner — and both of them are looking like they would need major financial help from the national GOP to beat Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.). (A potential bright spot for Republicans is wealthy businessman John Brunner who recently entered the race. But it’s not yet clear whether he fills the void.)
The governor’s race hasn’t been much better for Republicans.
Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder has been battered by a number of bad headlines, including for his past flirtations with a stripper whom he happened to be photographed with recently. (Ah, politics.)
Kinder has also seen his fundraising drop off significantly, from $1 million in the second quarter to $400,000 in the third, and Gov. Jay Nixon (D) is looking stronger every day.
Republicans familiar with the race note that Kinder hasn’t officially announced his bid — he’s getting some pressure not to run — and they expect an alternative candidate to emerge soon.
The question is just how good that candidate will be. Failed 2010 House candidate Ed Martin, who has been severely outraised by Wagner in the 2nd district race, is the subject of a draft effort by some conservatives.
Those close to Missouri politics say that there just isn’t much of a bench in the state, which accounts for their weaker-than-they-should-be fields.
Kinder is one of just two Republicans in a statewide constitutional office, and most of the state’s GOP House members — including, many thought, Akin — are not considered major talents who are upwardly mobile.
And, the potential rising stars the party was grooming have fallen on hard times in recent years.
They include state Sens. Jack Goodman and Gary Nodler, who both lost to now-Rep. Billy Long in a 2010 primary; former state representative. Bob Onder, who lost a 2008 primary to now-Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer; and state Sen. Bill Stouffer, who lost to now-Rep. Vicky Hartzler last year and is now running for secretary of state.
“Consecutive cycles of open seat House races with quality candidates has really shuffled the deck,” said a Missouri GOP operative. “What’s happened is that the winners have won, and the losers take a hit.”
Republicans were also wiped out at the statewide level in the 2008 election, including losses by state Sen. Brad Lager in the state treasurer’s race and former state senator Mike Gibbons, who lost the 2008 attorney general’s race to Chris Koster — a one-time rising GOP star who switched parties to become a Democrat in 2007.
Another GOP strategist says the dearth of talent is a result of the party in transition. “We are stuck between generations in Missouri, stuck between the rural that has dominated Missouri Republican politics and the urban where the money is,” the strategist said. “And you would have to indict the party for not incubating good prospects.”
Added another: “I think the GOP is struggling with good statewide candidates because the political talent on the Republican side is being bred right now or are running for other stepping-stone seats.”
Whatever the case, some in Missouri still have hope.
Brunner’s candidacy has some GOPers thinking he could fill the Senate void, though he remains totally untested as a candidate. But Republicans also argue that McCaskill is vulnerable enough that it may not require a top-tier challenger.
Those watching the governor’s race also think better days may lie ahead if and when a candidate not named “Kinder” emerges. But it remains to be seen who will step forward. There aren’t any obvious answers, and the 2012 race is a little more than a year away.
It is still quite early, of course, and if recent years have shown us anything, it’s that candidates don’t need well known names or big money this far out to win. The increase in spending by outside groups has also changed the game significantly, to the point where (as Fix friend Red Wilson notes today) candidate fundraising doesn’t mean as much.
But in a top-tier race in a swing(y) state like the Missouri, it’s highly unusual to see the party field lower-tier candidates like this. And it’s a cause for concern.