Missouri: a Senate race to watch

by Stephen Tall on October 22, 2006

The latest Electoral Vote projection for the United States’ senate after the Fall mid-terms suggests a 50-50 split between Republicans and Democrats. (Which leaves me a little unsure how they’re categorising Democrat-turned-Independent Senator Joe Lieberman, who currently leads his Democrat challenger Ned Lamont 49-38% in the race for Connecticut.)

The picture is more decisive in the battle for control of the House: the Dems currently are tipped to hold 227 to the GOP’s 206, with two races statistically tied.

This week’s Economist focuses on the race in Missouri – the famous bellwether ‘show me’ state which has successfully backed every victorious Presidential candidate since 1960 – where incumbent Republican senator Jim Talent (a name in search of a trait) is trailing feisty Democrat state auditor Claire McCaskill, who unsuccessful bid for the gubernatorial mansion in 2004.

In the flesh, Mr Talent is amiable but an awkward speaker: on the stump after the debate he had to remind his audience to clap. But he can draw on a reservoir of support from rural and Christian voters, who typically deplore the Democrats’ tolerance of abortion and gay marriage. “If we had a real Christian party, I’d go with that,” says Larry Atkins, a minister attending a Talent speech in Waynesville, a small town north-east of Springfield. But failing that, Mr Talent “is a good moral person.”

The race is a toss-up, according to the polls. The result depends on who gets out the vote, says Mr Talent. Ms McCaskill agrees. The Republicans think they are the best at this, she tells her supporters, “But this time we’ve got the passion on our side.” Unsurprisingly, given Missouri’s importance to the balance of power, the national Democratic and Republican parties are pitching in with oodles of cash and attack ads.

Both sides profess confidence. Ms McCaskill claims to be winning converts in conservative rural areas. One couple, she says, told her they used to vote Republican but were planning to switch because they no longer felt middle class, having lost their health insurance. “Jim Talent will win,” says Missouri’s Republican governor, Matt Blunt, stumping for him with bone-crushing handshakes on the county courthouse steps in Rolla, south-east Missouri. Behind him, an eight-year-old girl, urged on by her mother, is giving Mr Talent a hand-written extract from the Bible.

Two of the crunch campaign issues are Amendment 2, the Missouri Stem Cell Initiative – which would authorise stem-cell research within Missouri, and for Missourians to benefit from any cures produced – and Proposition B, which would raise the minimum wage to $6.50 an hour (that’s £3.45). Ms McCaskill supports both Amendment 2 (which Mr Talent opposes) and Proposition B (which Mr Talent has yet to take a position on).

The stakes have been upped considerably by the intervention of Michael J Fox, the symptoms of whose Parkinson’s Disease are painfully evident in this powerful advert recorded in support of Ms McCaskill’s Amendment 2 position:

And for those of us who too easily and too often stereotype the US stance on social issues according to our perception of scary-evangelical Christian Deep Southers, the Pew Research Centre report, Pragmatic Americans Liberal and Conservative on Social Issues (August 2006), is a reminder that things are rarely that simple:

Americans cannot be easily characterized as conservative or liberal on today’s most pressing social questions. The public’s point of view varies from issue to issue. They are conservative in opposing gay marriage and gay adoption, liberal in favoring embryonic stem cell research and a little of both on abortion. Along with favoring no clear ideological approach to most social issues, the public expresses a desire for a middle ground on the most divisive social concern of the day: abortion.

For ‘Americans’ substitute ‘Britons’ and that paragraph would, I suspect, accurately reflect views here, too. As George Bernard Shaw (probably) said, “Two nations divided by a common language”. It’s a statement which is still more true than false.