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Obama Uses McCaskill Win as Mo. Road Map

Hours before warming up the Pepsi Center crowd for Michelle Obama on Monday night, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) first tossed some political red meat to her home-state audience, telling the Show-Me State delegation at breakfast that she “doesn’t ever remember Missouri Democrats being this united.”

But perhaps hidden behind the rhetoric, McCaskill, a favorite surrogate of presumptive Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.), offered a glimpse of what she and other Democrats hope is the winning calculus come November in capturing the governor’s mansion, two GOP-held Congressional seats and — for the first time in more than a decade — Missouri’s 11 electoral votes.

“Raise your hand if you’re from rural Missouri,” McCaskill told the early morning crowd. “Now raise your hand if you’re from rural Missouri and you’ve ever seen this much [political] activity before.”

Once bent on running up high margins in and around St. Louis and Kansas City, Missouri Democrats say their urban-only strategy finally is a thing of the past, an outdated electoral approach that bottomed out four years ago, when presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) abandoned the state three weeks before the election.

That year, Missouri Democrats won only two of seven statewide elections. Kerry’s decision to decamp for Ohio and Pennsylvania less than one month before Election Day 2004 infuriated McCaskill, who described her discussion with Kerry soon after as “short and not pretty.”

“It’s the only time I’m ever aware of that a presidential candidate left Missouri before it was over,” McCaskill recalled in a recent interview with Roll Call. “Missouri has always been a state where campaigns have gone to the bitter end.”

McCaskill, who had defeated sitting Gov. Bob Holden (D) in the gubernatorial primary in 2004, lost the general election to Matt Blunt (R), son of House Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), 51 percent to 48 percent in 2004. Kerry lost to President Bush 53 percent to 46 percent. Both campaigns lost badly in rural areas, where Republicans had made substantial gains in the previous decade.

Richard Martin, a Missouri Democratic consultant, said complacency was to blame for his party’s 2004 drubbing at the hand of Republicans.

“We got a little comfortable with running up big margins in the urban areas and competing in the suburbs — and doing extremely well there — and we forgot that about 40 percent of the state is considered rural Missouri,” Martin said. “What [McCaskill] learned from her gubernatorial race was that you have to be authentic and you have to be out there … and that can’t always be achieved by 30-second TV ads.”

After dusting herself off, McCaskill soon had then-Sen. Jim Talent’s (R) Senate seat in her sights. Borrowing from the playbook of the late Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan (D), McCaskill reckoned the race would be won or lost on how many rural voters she could persuade. She enlisted Martin to run her campaign, which won 51 percent to 48 percent by turning once-ruby-red districts pink — or in some cases even sky blue.

“The decision to emphasize rural Missouri more was a decision that I made at the moment I decided to run” for the Senate, McCaskill said. “It would have been political malpractice not to notice that we needed to do better in rural Missouri.”

Democratic consultant Roy Temple agreed with McCaskill that her retuned 2006 strategy was not “rocket science.” He said it has “always been the formula,” but credited her with aggressively stumping last cycle in rural counties, where GOPers have become adept in the past decade of using wedge issues to turn Democrats into “cartoon characters.”

“If Democrats show up, then we can get a sufficient amount of the vote to be competitive. There are parts of the state that we’ll never carry, but it’s algebra — you have to get all the parts of the formula right,” Temple said. “You have to do well enough in urban areas, you have to do well enough in the suburban areas and you have to do less worse in some of the rural areas.”

McCaskill’s surprising 2006 win also was a major factor in former Kansas City Mayor Kay Barnes’ decision to target Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.) this cycle. The Senator narrowly won Graves’ district, and a handful of people within McCaskill’s inner circle are now working for Barnes.

The first-term Senator also was instrumental in persuading state Rep. Judy Baker (D) to challenge Rep. Kenny Hulshof (R). Hulshof chose to run for governor instead of seeking re-election, but Baker won the Aug. 5 Democratic primary in a landslide and will face former state tourism director Blaine Luetkemeyer (R) in November.

Like McCaskill in 2006, both Barnes and Baker have been endorsed by EMILY’s List, the fundraising group that promotes women Democrats who support abortion rights.

Once considered a possible Obama vice presidential pick, McCaskill also has lent her 2006 playbook to her Senate colleague, whose campaign recently opened 36 offices in Missouri — many in rural areas.

Obama has “certainly heeded some of Claire’s advice: He’s got to be out there,” Martin said. “You can’t just fly into the big cities. He’s got to roll up his sleeves and talk to people that live in rural America.”

Depending on how his party does in Missouri on Election Day, Martin hinted that Democrats may not stop there. Sen. Kit Bond (R-Mo.) is up for re-election in 2010, and multiple sources confirmed that Secretary of State Robin Carnahan (D), daughter of the late Senator and sister of Rep. Russ Carnahan (D-Mo.), is considering a possible challenge to Bond.

“She’s got a finely tuned thermometer as to what is going on,” Martin said. “And I’m pretty sure she’s going to be paying attention to the results and how Sen. Obama does in Missouri.”

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