Steelman backs off Senate primary vs. Blunt, turns focus to House seat

Rep. Roy Blunt’s path to the Republican nomination in Missouri’s Senate race got clearer last week, and it could become crystal-clear soon.

Former state Treasurer Sarah Steelman appears increasingly less likely to run against Blunt, and she acknowledged Monday that she is looking at a possible campaign for Blunt’s open House seat as an alternative.

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Steelman said shortly after Sen. Kit Bond’s (R-Mo.) retirement announcement in January that she was leaning toward entering the Senate race, and for a while, it was a foregone conclusion.

But after unleashing a string of Blunt criticisms and opening an exploratory committee in April, she has grown quieter and begun evaluating other options.

She was still largely quiet last week when potential Blunt challenger Tom Schweich and the man who had been promoting him, former Sen. John Danforth (R-Mo.), both changed course and announced their support for Blunt.

Though rarely afraid of ruffling feathers in the GOP establishment — including in a pitched gubernatorial primary with former Rep. Kenny Hulshof (R-Mo.) in 2008 — Steelman told The Hill on Monday that she is worried about hurting the GOP.

“I am always willing to fight for what I believe in, but I would certainly prefer to do it without further destruction to our party,” Steelman said, adding: “I want to find a positive avenue to move our party forward.”

Steelman insisted she is still thinking about the Senate race. But in defending the tone of the gubernatorial primary last year, she also suggested it might be time for someone else to take up the mantle against Blunt.

“We should have the same kind of discussion and debate about those issues if I — or some other outsider — run for U.S. Senate,” she said.

Republicans close to Steelman and the state GOP say her choice of words is telling. Her other options include running for state auditor next year or for governor in 2012, but they say it’s now more likely that she will run in the 7th congressional district.

Missouri GOP consultant David Barklage, who is advising state Sen. Jack Goodman in the 7th district race, said Steelman is almost definitely out on a Senate run and that she’s probably about 50-50 on running for Congress.

“It became apparent she wasn’t going to run for Senate when the Club for Growth looked like they were going to sit out,” he said. “When you run for statewide office in Missouri, there are 200 people you call. She’s not called any of those people.

“I think, other than her not wanting to announce she’s out until she decides what else to do, she’s out.”

Added a Missouri GOP source who recently spoke with Steelman: “Schweich’s going to run for auditor, and I think she’s running for Congress. She put the flag up in the air and tested the waters and no one saluted. Schweich put a flag up and a lot of people did salute.”

Schweich, a Danforth protégé, had the former senator’s support as he tested the waters for a Senate run, but Schweich changed course last week.

In an interview with The Hill on Monday, Danforth suggested he was merely advocating for a colleague and thinks it’s important for the party to avoid a primary.

 “I was thinking, at the time, that there was some advantage to having a totally fresh face running for the Senate,” Danforth said. “But I think he made the right decision that we would be better off as a party without a primary fight than with one.”

Sources agree that Steelman needed a “white horse” like the Club to help her raise money, especially with Danforth, Bond and the national party rallying around Blunt’s candidacy.

The Club opposed Blunt in his 2006 House leadership bid, backing challenger Rep. John Shadegg (R-Ariz.). But while it has frequently decried other potential 2010 Senate primary targets like Florida Gov. Charlie Crist and Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.), it has been largely silent on Blunt.

Club Executive Director David Keating noted that the Club likes “Sarah Steelman’s approach to earmarks and controlling spending” but declined to comment further since she is not a candidate.

A Republican consultant who has advised Steelman said her decision could also simply come down to pragmatism and that, with Schweich out, she probably sees her odds of winning the nomination going down.

“She was looking at it as: Two men against a woman, she’s got a better shot at winning the race,” the consultant said. “Now it’s her against Blunt, and it’s a Hulshof thing all over again. She would be heavily outspent and she starts down very far in terms of name ID.”

Steelman would be an underdog in both the primary and general election, where Missouri Secretary of State Robin Carnahan (D) awaits. Conversely, she could enter that House race as a GOP front-runner and could effectively win the heavily conservative seat in the primary.

But the congressional race wouldn’t be a walk for Steelman, either. She could encounter problems since she is not from the district and has roundly criticized Blunt, who remains popular there.

The field for Blunt’s House seat currently includes Goodman and fellow state Sen. Gary Nodler, who represent sizable portions of the district, as well as Greene County prosecutor Darrell Moore and auctioneer Billy Long.