August is usually a sleepy month in politics. Congress leaves Washington for its annual summer recess, and campaigning takes a back seat as voters, more concerned with their own vacations than with statewide elections, tune out. But that’s not the case this year. When the 113th Congress gavels into session in January, the party that controls the Senate will credit key primaries this month with handing them power.
The stakes are high for Republicans. Four states with competitive races hold GOP primaries over the next four weeks. And while the tone of a primary campaign rarely dictates the outcome in the fall, the candidates who emerge from those primaries will either help or hinder their party's chances to win the four seats necessary to take over the upper chamber.
That makes the Republican primaries in Wisconsin, Missouri, Connecticut, and Arizona worth watching.
Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri remains the most vulnerable Democrat seeking reelection this year. A recent St. Louis Post-Dispatch survey showed her trailing all three of her possible competitors -- Rep. Todd Akin, businessman John Brunner, and former state Treasurer Sarah Steelman -- between 5 and 11 percentage points. In the same poll, more Missourians said they view McCaskill unfavorably than favorably, highlighting her vulnerability.
McCaskill caught the perfect wave in 2006, when she knocked off incumbent Republican Jim Talent. She had served as the state auditor, which gave her the chance to cast herself as an outsider bent on reforming government. And she ran at a time when voters were upset with the country’s direction. Exit polls showed a majority of voters disapproving of the job President George W. Bush was doing and of the war in Iraq.
Everything that worked for McCaskill then is working against her now. She’s the incumbent, one who cast tough votes for health care reform legislation, the economic stimulus, and the Troubled Asset Relief Program. President Obama is unpopular in the state, and while some Democrats have run away from the top of the ticket, McCaskill has openly embraced him and urged him to run a campaign in Missouri.
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It’s clear that Democrats want to face Akin. McCaskill’s team recently launched a barrage of negative advertisements against all three Republicans, but the spot targeting Akin might as well have been a positive. It labeled him the “most conservative” candidate and the most committed to small government -- hardly negatives in a GOP primary. Republicans say the Akin ad is airing more frequently than the others, although McCaskill’s campaign won't comment on the ad strategy.
But the same survey that showed McCaskill trailing has Brunner leading the GOP race. He has already put $7 million of his own money into the contest, and he’s hinted at a willingness to spend more. If McCaskill faces Brunner in the fall, Democrats are quietly pessimistic about her chances. Still, she is popular within the Senate Democratic Caucus, and her decision to run six years ago was the party’s first big recruiting win. Those warm feelings and happy nostalgia mean that the party is likely to fight to the end, even if McCaskill’s odds get longer.
Wisconsin’s primary also features a longtime elected official vying to stave off an insurgent with no electoral experience. But former Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson is no Todd Akin. Thompson won election to four terms, and virtually every voter in the state still recognizes him. That makes the fact that Thompson appears to have a hard ceiling on his support perplexing on its face. He hasn’t been above 40 percent in any public poll this year.
Meanwhile, businessman Eric Hovde is playing the role Brunner fills in Missouri, spending heavily from his bank account to introduce himself to primary voters. Republicans see in Hovde many of the same traits that businessman Ron Johnson brought to his race in 2010, when he defeated Democratic Sen. Russell Feingold. Hovde has an interesting populist, anti-Wall Street streak that could appeal to voters angry at an economic meltdown brought on by the financial crisis, although some Republicans worry that he could be defined as the Washington hedge-fund manager, the career that made his fortune.
Most Democrats want to face former Rep. Mark Neumann, whom they see as the most beatable candidate, and some recent polls are showing him surging. But most strategists on both sides believe that the Aug. 14 primary will come down to Hovde and Thompson, with the newcomer edging out the old-timer. Democratic voters remember casting ballots for Thompson during his tenure as governor, but Wisconsin’s Republican electorate has become much more conservative, leading most observers to give Hovde the advantage.