KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- If you seek this year's emblematic election, look at Missouri. In this bellwether state, which has voted with the winner in 25 of the last 26 presidential elections, the U.S. Senate contest between incumbent Republican Jim Talent and state auditor Claire McCaskill encompasses today's political controversies.
Talent, 49, lost a race for governor in 2000 by 21,445 votes, and won two-thirds of a Senate term in 2002 by 21,254 (defeating Sen. Jean Carnahan, who was appointed to the Senate in 2000 when her husband Mel was elected 22 days after dying in a plane crash). So he is running statewide for the third time in six years. In 2002, President Bush made five trips to Missouri on his behalf. This year, Talent, like most Republican candidates, is stressing his independence, but Bush is coming Sept. 8 for a third visit anyway.
McCaskill, 53, in 2004 defeated an incumbent governor in the Democratic primary, then lost the governorship race by 80,977 votes out of 2.7 million cast. Talent believes McCaskill is having trouble raising campaign money in Missouri because ``governors have friends.'' Perhaps. Talent has moved into a small lead in recent polls.
She will carry the St. Louis and Kansas City metropolitan areas, which cast 57 percent of Missouri's votes. To win, however, she must prevent huge Talent majorities in what she calls ``Ashcroftland'' -- rural and very religious areas, especially southwest Missouri, which sent John Ashcroft to the Senate to replace Republican Jack Danforth when he retired in 1994 after three terms.
McCaskill is imprudently forthright. One advantage of not being the incumbent is that she has not had to cast Senate votes on contentious matters. She takes positions anyway:
She says Missourians are angry about gas prices, but she opposes drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and on the outer continental shelf. She opposed last year's energy bill -- a measure supported, Talent notes, by every Midwestern senator because of provisions promoting the use of agricultural commodities in ethanol and other fuels. She opposed estate tax reform, which Talent says is important to Missouri's farmers and small-business people. When Howard Dean campaigned for her, before Justice Sam Alito had been confirmed, the Democratic National Committee chairman said her election would mean ``one less vote for Judge Alito.'' First, she said Dean did not speak for her. Then she came out against Alito.
Regarding Iraq, McCaskill says Talent's position is ``we've got to build a democracy at the barrel of a gun, no matter what.'' Talent says his position is ``we have to see it through and win it,'' and defines winning as helping to ``create a multiethnic democracy that can be reasonably successful, more or less on its own. Kind of like Vietnamization.'' McCaskill, speaking in Independence -- hometown of Harry Truman, another former occupant of the Senate seat she seeks -- called for creation of (and offered to chair) something like the Truman Committee that investigated the war effort during the Second World War, and made Truman a national figure.
Talent, a right-to-life evangelical Christian, removed himself as a sponsor of a Senate bill to ban cloning because he thought it might ban research he considers ethically acceptable. The Missouri Baptist Convention's newspaper expressed ``fire-spittin' disbelief'' that Talent has embraced ``pagan ideas'' at the behest of ``the clone-to-kill movement,'' and hence can no longer be considered pro-life. Such invective motivated Danforth, a right-to-life Episcopal priest, to write a book, ``Faith and Politics,'' due out in mid-September. It deplores the religious right's power to drive Republican behavior in matters such as stem cells and Congress' intervention in the Terri Schiavo case.
Danforth, one of whose brothers died of Lou Gehrig's disease, and who hopes that embryonic stem cell research might hasten discovery of cures for that and other diseases, is honorary co-chairman of a lavishly funded -- and, so far, popular -- campaign to amend Missouri's Constitution this November to protect the right to conduct such research. Such research is important to Washington University in St. Louis, and a private philanthropist is promising to fund substantial research in Kansas City, but only if the amendment passes. McCaskill supports it. Talent opposes it.
Democrats think this issue will drive up suburban turnout. Republicans think it will do so in Ashcroftland. Both are probably correct in the polarized politics of 2006.