Missouri Republicans on the hunt for 2012 challenger for Sen. McCaskill

Several Missouri Republicans are lining up to challenge Sen. Claire McCaskill next cycle, but unseating the first-term Democrat won’t be easy, according to observers, and the GOP’s first priority might be avoiding a nasty primary battle.

“Her numbers do not look good, but who’s going to beat her, is the question,” said Kenneth Warren, a political science professor and pollster at Saint Louis University.

Prominent Republicans such as former Sen. Jim Talent, former Treasurer Sarah Steelman, Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder and Ann Wagner, a former ambassador, are all considered potential candidates.

Should more than one of them decide to run, the logjam could hamper the GOP’s chances of unseating McCaskill. 

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With that in mind, Lloyd Smith, the executive director of the state GOP, said he’s been in conversations with several candidates in order to express the party’s desire to avoid an “intense primary.”

“I think people at this stage are testing the water, not necessarily setting up exploratory committees,” Smith said.

Of the candidates being mentioned, Warren gives Steelman the best chance against McCaskill. 

“Steelman could beat McCaskill with a good Republican climate, as long as the Republicans backed her,” he said.

Steelman, a Tea Party favorite, ran in the 2008 GOP gubernatorial primary but lost to establishment-backed Kenny Hulshof. Democrat Jay Nixon ultimately defeated Hulshof by almost 20 points in the general election.

Warren said that Wagner, who is currently waging a bid for the Republican National Committee chairmanship, is a “divisive character” who wouldn’t capture much support.

Talent, he added, is considered too much of a “city slicker” to appeal to rural Missouri voters.

“[Retiring GOP Sen.] Kit Bond, Jay Nixon, they’re all from rural areas,” he said. “McCaskill is more rural than Talent — he’s from St. Louis County.”

McCaskill defeated Talent in 2006 by fewer than 50,000 votes, and there are concerns his work as a lobbyist could hurt him if he tries to re-enter politics.

And those candidates may be only the beginning.

On Election Day, the GOP increased its ranks in the state House from 88 to 106 members and in the state Senate from 23 to 26 members. Moreover, the State Legislature has eight-year term limits, which will apply to senior members, such as state House Speaker-elect Steven Tilley (R). Being term-limited out of the Legislature could prompt those members to seek higher office. 

Tilley said the Senate race is something he’s “thought about,” but with his oldest child being only 17, he’s leaning against running in 2012. 

“It’s something I might look at in the future,” he said, noting the party will have a strong field of candidates. “I think Jim Talent right now is the frontrunner.”

Complicating Republican calculations is that almost all the state’s top constitutional offices — governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, treasurer — are up for reelection in 2012. The challenge for Missouri Republicans is to channel their candidates into the right races.

The party has had some success in that regard. In 2010, for instance, party officials were able to convince former ambassador Tom Schweich to drop a potential Senate bid, which would have pitted him against Roy Blunt in a primary. Instead, Schweich ran for auditor and won — a rare victory over a down-ballot Democratic incumbent. Blunt went on to win the Senate seat over Democrat Robin Carnahan.

There’s also concern that Missouri could spawn the kind of Tea Party candidacy that contributed to the GOP’s losing Senate races in Delaware and Nevada last cycle.

“I think Missouri could be ripe for Tea Party people, and I think there are a lot of Tea Party people here, but the prominence of the establishment candidates have shut the door on Tea Party people,” Warren said. “Blunt was challenged by several Tea Party people in the primary and they just got absolutely nowhere.”

Still, Washington-based GOP strategists expressed concern not about a contentious GOP Senate primary, but rather a primary that yielded an unelectable candidate.

“The problem that can arise from a primary is when the winner is a candidate who simply can’t win the general election, as Republicans saw with Sharron Angle [in Nevada] and Christine O’Donnell [in Delaware],” a GOP strategist said on background to speak candidly about the process. “So the message to every front-running candidate is to not be scared about a primary, but to be fully prepared for them, because ultimately the best candidate should win.”

A spokeswoman for McCaskill said her record in the Senate is that of a moderate. The senator has made it clear she intends to seek reelection, although she admits it’ll be an uphill battle.

During a recent appearance on “Fox News Sunday,” McCaskill said she’ll be the “underdog” in 2012. 

“And that means I’m going to have to work twice as hard, which is OK with me,” she said.

The Democrat has also sought to distance herself from President Obama, despite being one of his early backers during the 2008 presidential primary.

“My record of independence stretches back, frankly, for a long time,” McCaskill said during the Nov. 28 appearance. “I’m opposed to cap-and-trade. I voted against the omnibus. I voted against the second round on ‘cash for clunkers.’ I voted against a number of — in fact, I voted against every omnibus bill. I voted against comprehensive immigration reform. There’s a long list of things where I’ve separated.”

For now, it seems Missouri Republicans are banking on Obama remaining unpopular. 

Smith said that one of the main issues in 2012 will be that McCaskill has voted in “lockstep” with Obama. 

“I certainly believe that 2012 will be an excellent year for us in the U.S. Senate race,” he said.