Talent leans on House GOP to win reelection to Senate

Missouri’s Republican congressional delegation is gearing up to help Sen. Jim Talent (R-Mo.) win what is expected to be a competitive reelection race, while strategists in both parties are uncertain about the impact several controversial ballot initiatives could have on voter turnout in November.

Missouri’s Republican congressional delegation is gearing up to help Sen. Jim Talent (R-Mo.) win what is expected to be a competitive reelection race, while strategists in both parties are uncertain about the impact several controversial ballot initiatives could have on voter turnout in November.

Talent has hired Lloyd Smith, GOP Rep. Jo Ann Emerson’s chief of staff, as his campaign manager. Smith managed Talent’s winning Senate campaign in 2002, ran President Bush’s reelection campaign in Missouri in 2004 and had worked for Emerson’s husband, former Rep. Bill Emerson (R-Mo.), who died in 1996. Smith has never lost a race.

Sen. Kit Bond (R-Mo.) and Republican Reps. Roy Blunt, the majority whip, Emerson, Kenny Hulshof, Sam Graves and Todd Akin are helping raise money and preparing for an aggressive get-out-the-vote effort.

Talent, who served in the House from 1994 to 2000, also has hired GOP media consultant Scott Allen and Republican pollster Linda DiVall of American Viewpoint.

On the money front, Vice President Cheney and first lady Laura Bush have helped Talent amass $4.6 million in his campaign coffers. His opponent, two-term state Auditor Claire McCaskill (D), raised $1.5 million this year and has $2 million in the bank.

Republicans expect the money gap to narrow and the race to be close. McCaskill has proved she can win statewide.

In 2004, she came within three percentage points of defeating Matt Blunt, Roy Blunt’s son, in the gubernatorial race. To become the nominee, she defeated the incumbent Democratic governor in the primary.

Moreover, in Talent’s two previous statewide races, the difference between winning and losing amounted to less than 1 percent of the overall votes cast. In 2002, Talent won 22,000 more votes than incumbent Sen. Jean Carnahan (D-Mo.), who had been appointed to fill her husband’s seat after he was killed in a plane crash days before the 2000 election.

That year, Talent ran for governor and lost by 20,000 votes.

But Talent has maintained a low profile in his four years in the Senate, having focused on issues important to the state, such as methamphetamine abuse, military spending, renewable-fuel standards and association health plans.

“Jim really does appreciate the finer points of policy,” a Missouri GOP lawmaker said. “He is truly a legislator. … He has an ability to see issues in advance of everyone else.”

Talent, a University of Chicago Law School graduate who clerked for iconoclastic Judge Richard Posner, has worked with Democrats to pass legislation allowing the Air Force to buy up to 42 C-17 airplanes, create an office of unsolved crimes in the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and insert provisions into the energy bill providing incentives for the use of alternative fuels, such as ethanol.

Talent and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) passed legislation to make it harder for consumers to buy cold medicine that is used to make methamphetamines. Still, GOP sources said Blunt was responsible for incorporating the bill into the Patriot Act over the objections of House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) in conference with the Senate. Bush signed the bill into law last month.

Campaign observers expect that McCaskill will have a hard time painting Talent as a Talent as an out-of-touch, frothing-at-the-mouth conservative.

“He’s a policy guy, a wonk. He doesn’t knee-jerk, so it’ll be hard for McCaskill to push [Talent] to the right,” Hulshof said.

But McCaskill will try to paint Talent as an unquestioning proxy of the Bush administration and corporate America, pointing to his votes for the energy and Medicare prescription-drug bills, said McCaskill spokesman Adrienne Marsh.

“He is not his own man,” she said. “He does not stand on the side of Missourians.”

Meanwhile, the campaigns are watching whether proposed referendums asking voters to levy a 4-cent tax on cigarettes, direct public funds to religious organizations, cap state spending and support stem-cell research will make it onto the ballot.

The proposed stem-cell referendum, which campaign officials expect will be ratified May 9 for the November ballot, has flummoxed Talent. He angered both the business community, which backs the initiative, and religious conservative voters who oppose it. By dropping his sponsorship of a bill that would ban cloning, offered by Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) — with whom Talent shares a house in D.C. — Talent angered conservatives.

Anti-abortion-rights activists and conservative columnists criticized Talent for withdrawing his support. The St. Louis Post Dispatch editorialized, “What forced [Talent’s] hand are polls that show McCaskill either leading him or in a deadlock for the Senate seat.”

And Democrats, counting on the stem-cell issue to help sway independent voters, have pounced on Talent for not taking a stand on the referendum.

But a senior adviser to Talent’s campaign discounted the impact of his stem-cell position, saying the issue “breaks about even” and predicting that Talent would “hold his base.”