Attempting to reinvigorate their sluggish recruitment efforts in the Missouri Senate race, Democrats recently commissioned a poll aimed at luring a top-tier candidate into a challenge to Sen. Jim Talent (R).
The survey, which was conducted by Paul Harstad for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, showed the freshman Senator with considerable vulnerability — especially if Democrats can entice state Auditor Claire McCaskill into the contest.
McCaskill, who narrowly lost a bid for governor in 2004, is being heavily pressured to make the race by influential state and national operatives and did agree to have her name included in the poll, according to informed sources.
McCaskill and Talent were tied at 43 percent in the Harstad survey.
The poll tested 620 likely voters April 11-14 with a 4 percent margin of error.
McCaskill is considering the race and has set a relatively short timetable for deciding, one knowledgeable Democratic source said.
“It’s true she’s been encouraged by people across Missouri to consider running for U.S. Senate,” a McCaskill adviser said. “Claire takes that encouragement seriously and will make a thoughtful decision soon about her plans.”
Landing McCaskill would be a major coup for state and national Democrats decimated by the Show Me State’s 2004 election results.
Last November, President Bush won the state by 6 points over Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry (D), double his 2000 victory margin.
Republicans also took the open gubernatorial race and re-elected Sen. Kit Bond (R) by his largest margin ever.
With those gains, Republicans control five of the eight statewide offices, including both Senate seats. They also have held majorities in the state Senate since 2001 and the state House since 2002.
In the aftermath of such across-the-board defeats, Democrats point to Talent’s re-election race as their best chance to regain a foothold in the state’s political hierarchy.
Talent won the seat in 2002 by besting then-Sen. Jean Carnahan (D) by just more than 21,000 votes.
She had been appointed to the seat in late 2000, following her late husband Mel Carnahan’s posthumous victory over then-Sen. John Ashcroft (R). Because she was appointed to fill a vacancy, state law required Carnahan to stand for election to the remaining four years left on the term in 2002.
During his first three years in the Senate, Talent has generally kept a low profile — especially when compared to some of his former House colleagues who switched chambers.
According to the Harstad survey, 36 percent of those tested would vote to re-elect Talent, 34 percent preferred someone else and 30 percent were undecided.
In addition, 43 percent gave him an “excellent” or “good” job rating; 40 percent gave him a “fair” or “poor” score.
“Candidly, we cannot recall an incumbent senator with lower positive ratings than Talent, barring a handful who may have been scandal-ridden,” Harstad wrote in the polling memo.
In preparation for his first re-election race, Talent has stockpiled a solid — if not spectacular — $1.3 million war chest, according to reports filed with the Federal Election Commission last week. Talent raised $1.3 million from Jan. 1 to March 31 while disbursing $212,000.
Talent “stands in a great place,” said National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesman Brian Nick. “He has put himself out there as someone who is going to be difficult to challenge.”
Even Democrats acknowledge that a McCaskill candidacy would be far from a slam dunk for their party because of the state’s Republican lean and Talent’s base in typically Democratic St. Louis County.
In order for Democrats to win statewide in Missouri, they must roll up massive victories in the two urban centers of St. Louis and Kansas City while trying to stay competitive in suburban areas and not losing the rural Outstate vote too badly.
As evidence, look at McCaskill’s 2004 gubernatorial race against Matt Blunt (R). McCaskill lost the race by just 81,000 votes out of more than 2.6 million cast even though she carried only 15 of the state’s 116 counties.
Of the 1.3 million votes McCaskill received, nearly 515,000 — or roughly 40 percent — came from St. Louis City, St. Louis County and Kansas City.
Democratic strategists hope that in a non-presidential year turnout in the more rural, Republican areas of the state will drop off, giving them a chance to win if they can maximize turnout in the cities.
The party was also heartened by the victory earlier this month of state Rep. Frank Barnitz (D), who won a special election for a rural central Missouri state Senate seat that Blunt and Bush both carried with more than 65 percent.
Raw numbers aside, it remains unclear whether McCaskill wants to give up her current position as state auditor to run for Senate.
Because both offices are up for election in 2006 and state law bars simultaneous bids for for multiple positions, McCaskill will have to choose which to pursue; those close to her say that she enjoys the work she is currently doing and may not be willing to give up her post as auditor.
McCaskill may also have her eye on a 2008 rematch with Blunt, a race in which she would likely be the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination.
Should McCaskill not make the Senate race, Democrats could turn to two other state officials mentioned as potential candidates: Attorney General Jay Nixon and Secretary of State Robin Carnahan.
Nixon is more interested in a run for governor in 2008 but might opt into the Senate race to avoid a primary with McCaskill.
If Nixon decides to enter the race, it would be his third Senate bid in 18 years.
He took 32 percent against then-Sen. John Danforth (R) in 1988; 10 years later he took 44 percent against Bond in a race largely defined by the rift between the Democratic candidate and the black community.
Robin Carnahan, the daughter of Jean and Mel, was elected to her current post in 2004. She is seen a rising star within the party and carries a golden last name but remains unlikely to make the contest.