Until last week, The Cook Political Report deemed the Senate races in Missouri and Ohio to “lean Democratic.” The analysts have now shifted McCaskill’s race to the “toss-up” category in the wake of the private-plane controversy. Even if that controversy had never erupted, both races have the makings of marquee contests.
Although Brown and McCaskill are vulnerable, the political maxim still holds: You can’t beat somebody with nobody. In 2010, Republicans had Portman in Ohio and Roy Blunt in Missouri—two heavyweights who pulled off double-digit victories over Democratic opponents in open-seat contests. It’s still early for 2012, and Republicans are actively recruiting, but neither state party has an obvious political star to take on the Democratic incumbent in this cycle.
In Ohio, a number of potential candidates are eyeing the race, with recent buzz centering on state Treasurer Josh Mandel, a 33-year-old former Marine and an Iraq war veteran. If Mandel is the nominee, he’ll have his work cut out for him. In a March 2011 Quinnipiac University poll, 45 percent of voters said that Brown deserves to be reelected; only 30 percent said he does not. (They were nearly evenly split, 45 percent to 46 percent, on whether Obama deserves a second term.) Brown has been “a very adept officeholder and one who works in a very smart way and a very aggressive way,” said Curt Steiner, a veteran of Ohio GOP campaigns and a former top lobbyist for Ohio State University. “He works hard to stay in touch in Ohio as well as [working] hard in Washington, so I don’t think anybody underestimates how tough he will be next year.”
In Missouri, a potentially crowded field is forming, with lawyer and unsuccessful 2010 GOP House candidate Ed Martin and former state Treasurer Sarah Steelman already declaring bids; former state party Chairwoman Ann Wagner and GOP Rep. Todd Akin are also considered potential candidates. “Send Claire Home On the Next Jet Out of D.C,” reads the invitation to a Steelman fundraiser.
In both states, Republicans have a case to make. Brown and McCaskill are beatable. But neither senator made it to Washington by being politically naive. Although their strategies for staying in Washington may differ, each may forge a winning path. As the 2010 elections demonstrated, some incumbents survive political waves. For every Russell Feingold or Arlen Specter who lost, a Harry Reid or a Patty Murray survived. Waves matter, but so does a well-executed campaign strategy. Brown and McCaskill will be putting theirs to the test soon.
This article appears in the April 2, 2011, edition of National Journal.