In Missouri, Donald Trump turns a sleeper Senate race into a toss-up — with a message that helps Democrats

Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Jason Kander leans in as he campaigns in Missouri's toss-up contest.
Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Jason Kander leans in as he campaigns in Missouri’s toss-up contest.
(Mark Z. Barabak / Los Angeles Times)

As control of the U.S. Senate comes down to a handful of states, Democrats are benefiting from an unlikely ally in one of the closest races in the country: Donald Trump.

Six years ago, Republican Roy Blunt was easily elected in Missouri, fending off charges he’d gone native and forgotten the folks back home after more than a decade on Capitol Hill.

Now, facing the very same accusation, Blunt is in serious jeopardy, thanks in good part to the GOP’s presidential nominee, whose take-a-torch-to-Washington message is keyed perfectly to the pitch of Democrat Jason Kander.


The youthful Army veteran, a relative newcomer to politics, portrays Blunt as the living embodiment of what many loathe about their national government.

“Sen. Blunt... wakes up every morning in Washington thinking about what he can do that day for the special interests that fund his campaign and his lifestyle,” Kander said during a recent stop at a small pie shop in Rolla, part of a statewide bus tour.

He cites Blunt’s $1.6-million home in the capital’s posh Georgetown neighborhood and family full of lobbyists — his wife and three children are all paid to ply their influence — to suggest the senator is no longer the humble public servant and civic-minded reformer he once was.

Blunt’s response can be summed up in two words.

“Those two words are ‘Supreme Court,’” Blunt said at a get-out-the-vote rally in Kansas City, ticking off several 5-4 decisions — on guns, abortion, campaign finance — that could be reversed if Hillary Clinton is elected and a Democratic-run Senate confirms her high-court nominees.

“The other side gets it,” Blunt said. “That’s why they’re willing to do anything. That’s why they’re willing to say anything.”

Few, save Kander, took his candidacy seriously when he announced he was running. Perhaps that’s because the script was so familiar and the outcome so conclusive.

But there are important differences between this race and the Senate contest six years ago, beyond even Trump and the way he’s seeded the antiestablishment environment.

The presidential contest will draw far more voters — and many more Democrats — than the 2010 election, when Blunt was elected to the Senate after seven terms in the House.

More significantly, Blunt’s last contest pitted him against a household name, Democrat Robin Carnahan, whose father was governor, whose mother served in the Senate and who had a brother serving alongside Blunt in the House. That made it difficult, to say the least, to campaign as a political outsider.

(For a fairly large state, Missouri can seem like a very small town; Blunt’s father got his start in politics by defeating the mother of Democrat Claire McCaskill, the state’s other U.S. senator, in a race for the state Legislature.)

At 35, Kander is almost half the age of the 66-year-old Blunt, a disparity enhanced by his brisk stride, unlined face and long, lean frame. He was elected secretary of state in 2012 after just two terms as a state lawmaker, representing a slice of Kansas City.

The most compelling part of Kander’s biography — and the centerpiece of his campaign — is his military experience. He volunteered for the Army after 9/11 and served as an intelligence officer in Afghanistan; the notions of duty, service and sacrifice are ones he repeatedly invokes, in pointed contrast to Blunt’s decades in the political trenches.

“What we really need are more people who have been through something voluntarily in their life that is more difficult than a reelection campaign,” Kander said, drawing nods from a crowd of 50 or so at the pie shop in Rolla, where photos of individual slices were framed and hung like loving family portraits. “I have.”

The most widely noted moment of the campaign is a TV spot in which Kander professes his support for 2nd Amendment gun rights while assembling an AR-15 semi-automatic assault rifle, blindfolded. He challenges Blunt, who had three Vietnam-era draft deferments, to do the same.

The ad has been viewed more than 1.3 million times on YouTube. But apart from drawing national attention to the race, the commercial aimed to send a message to rural and culturally conservative voters that even if Kander is from Kansas City, he is no citified politician.

“He’s portraying himself as a mainstream Missourian,” said Jeremy Walling, who teaches political science at Southeast Missouri State University. “If you didn’t know he was a Democrat, you couldn’t tell from his commercials.”

Blunt and his allies are working hard to address that omission. The National Rifle Assn. has endorsed the incumbent and bombarded Kander with ads attacking his legislative record on gun issues. “Defend your rights,” says the narrator. “Defeat Jason Kander.” (Blunt’s son, Matt, a former Missouri governor, sits on the board of the NRA.)

Blunt and fellow Republicans also link Kander to Clinton at every turn, seizing on a $500,000 contribution she made to the state Democratic Party to boost turnout. Ads show Kander’s face variously morphing into House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco, independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Obama and Clinton. “Behind Jason Kander’s fresh face,” the ad intones, “is a lot of the same old liberal thinking.”

For some, that association is worrisome enough to overcome any doubts about Blunt.

Don Bass drove 35 miles from the suburbs and missed a World Series game to attend the GOP rally in Kansas City, where he wore a sticker promoting Eric Greitens, a former Navy SEAL running for governor.

Asked about Blunt, his first words were, “Twenty years” — the time the senator has spent in Washington.

No one should make a career of politics, said Bass, 59, allowing that Kander was on to something about staying too long in office. But the Republican can’t bring himself to support Blunt’s challenger, Bass said, because he sees that as supporting Clinton as well.

“I think she’s a crook,” he explained, sounding almost apologetic, “and the Clinton Foundation is a criminal enterprise.”

In response, Kander cited his military experience, noting he served under both Republican and Democratic presidents.

“Both of them made decisions that I didn’t always agree with, but what was most important to me was the mission,” he said before stepping onto a big blue motor coach bearing his smiling face. “When I’m in the U.S. Senate, my party’s not going to be my main consideration ... the mission is to represent Missouri and represent the people of Missouri.”

Blunt insists he has done so quite effectively, using his accumulated clout to the state’s considerable advantage, a notion seconded by the Kansas City Star. “Blunt knows how to get things done,” the newspaper stated in its endorsement “And he does them for the benefit of the Missourians he represents.”

The editorial cited, among other accomplishments, funds Blunt secured for roads, bridges and flood control, to boost manufacturing and increase agricultural research. (In another era it was called pork-barreling, before the term fell out of political favor.)

But Blunt’s campaign has seemed more focused on the danger he sees Clinton posing to the country, aided by Kander if he’s elected.

Democrats need to pick up four seats to gain control of the Senate, assuming Clinton wins and her running mate, Tim Kaine, would be available to break tie votes. In the final days of the 2016 campaign, a takeover seems more likely than not.

Although early hopes faded in Ohio and Florida, Democrats appear to have edged ahead in their fight to hang on to Minority Leader Harry Reid’s seat in Nevada. That leaves an open seat in Indiana and contests in Illinois, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Missouri.

“They believe this is the 51st seat in the Senate,” Blunt, standing before a big American flag, told a crowd of about 150 Republicans in a hotel ballroom less than half full. “We should, too.”


What the WikiLeaks emails tell us about Hillary Clinton’s campaign (and what they don’t)

Bill Clinton, the natural, reaches out to voters in places that love Trump

California’s U.S. Senate race is slipping away from Loretta Sanchez