ST. LOUIS (AP) — In an election with control of the Senate at stake, Republicans were counting on a win in GOP-friendly Missouri. Instead they're suddenly plunging millions into the state to save incumbent Sen. Roy Blunt from a young challenger who assembled an AR-15 rifle blindfolded in a daring new ad.
Polls show the race is close, but Democrats argue the momentum is with Missouri's 35-year-old secretary of state, Jason Kander, a former Army intelligence officer in Afghanistan. Even Republicans were awed by Kander's recent TV ad showing him putting together a rifle with a blindfold on and challenging Blunt, who did not serve in the military, to do the same.
"Mr. Kander has hired himself a great ad agency. My hat is off to him," said GOP Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the campaign arm of the Senate GOP.
Democrats' Senate campaign committee has sought to seize the moment, announcing $3.5 million in new advertising last week. "That's a very, very, very, good ad, maybe the best ad I've ever seen, but that means buying more," said the committee's chairman, Sen. Jon Tester of Montana.
This week, Wicker's committee was forced to answer back with more than $500,000 in broadcast spending so far in St. Louis and Springfield. The Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC run by allies of Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is also spending heavily on the race, investing $2.5 million in Missouri this month alone.
Privately some Republicans voice dismay that they have to intervene in the Missouri race to such an extent at a time when they're defending incumbents in blue and purple states around the country. In an unpredictable political environment with Donald Trump at the top of the ticket, Republicans are trying to protect a slim 54-46 Senate majority against Democrats who are determined to retake control.
The shifting environment in Missouri comes partly because Democrats are pulling back in battleground Ohio, where incumbent GOP Sen. Rob Portman has opened a substantial lead, and in Florida, where incumbent GOP Sen. Marco Rubio is looking strong in a state where advertising is extremely expensive. Instead Democrats have decided to direct resources to North Carolina and to Missouri, where their advertising dollars will go farther.
Many Republicans are concerned about North Carolina's GOP Sen. Richard Burr, but many still sound confident that Blunt will ultimately prevail. The 66-year-old has served in Congress for two decades and is a member of the Senate leadership, but he lives in Washington, D.C., where he can be seen walking his dog around his Northwest D.C. neighborhood, and has been attacked over his family's network of D.C. lobbying contacts. His son Andy, a lobbyist, is also his campaign manager.
"It's going to be closer than it ought to be I think, given the uniqueness of this election year, but Roy Blunt's going to win," said John Hancock, chairman of the Missouri Republican Party. "The reason Democrats are putting money into Missouri is they have failed to gain any traction in other Senate races across the country."
And despite praising Kander's ad, Wicker said Republicans would show the Democrat is wrong for Missouri by highlighting his support for President Barack Obama's health care law, his F rating from the National Rifle Association and other issues. Republicans have been substantially outspending Democrats in the state so far.
"Jason Kander is really good at taking a gun apart and putting it back together. I expect also that he could ride a bull at a rodeo in a very effective manner. Perhaps he could do a lot of push-ups," Wicker said. "When all of that is said and done the fact is he's totally out of step with Missouri on the key issues that this campaign will revolve around."
Kander himself, in a phone interview with The Associated Press, said he is seeing increasing enthusiasm at his rallies. The gun ad, he said, certainly helped.
"Our message from Day 1 has been that Missourians are frustrated with politics as usual in Washington and are ready for a new generation of leadership," Kander said. "Clearly, that's resonating."
Aides declined to make Blunt available for an interview but insisted he was taking the race seriously and working hard.
"Roy Blunt has been to all 115 counties in Missouri an unprecedented three times since declaring for Senate. In August alone, he made more than 100 stops across the state," said spokesman Tate O'Connor. "No one works harder for Missouri than Roy Blunt."
Werner reported from Washington.