ST. LOUIS (AP) — Four years after a strange campaign kept one Missouri Senate seat in Democratic hands, the party is hoping to capitalize on anti-incumbent sentiment and claim the other.
If 35-year-old Secretary of State Jason Kander upsets Republican Sen. Roy Blunt, it would be a coup for Democrats in a state where Republicans dominate the Legislature and haven't lost a presidential race for two decades. Recent polls show Blunt, 66, a longtime member of Congress, with a slim lead, but it's well within the polling margin of error, making the contest a virtual toss-up.
With Senate control potentially hanging in the balance, a Missouri campaign is a major national focus for the second time in four years.
In 2012, Sen. Claire McCaskill — once considered one of the chamber's most vulnerable Democratic incumbents — easily won re-election after Republican challenger Todd Akin commented on a St. Louis TV talk show that women's bodies have ways of avoiding pregnancy from what he called "legitimate rape."
The Blunt-Kander race wasn't always expected to be so close, but University of Missouri-St. Louis political science professor David Kimball said Kander has benefited from voters' anti-Washington sentiment.
"I think perhaps there's some anger in the general population with politics as usual and with people perceived as being veteran, career politicians, and for them, someone like Kander may look more appealing than Sen. Blunt," Kimball said.
Even now, both sides are playing it reasonably safe on the campaign trail, sticking to the same talking points they've been hammering home for months.
Blunt, who served seven terms in the House before election to the Senate in 2010, focuses on the need to bring more and better-paying jobs to Missouri, making the nation safer, and reducing regulations.
Kander highlights his background as an Army intelligence officer in Iraq, and the need for a new generation of leadership in Washington.
Both sides are spending millions of dollars on TV ads, bolstered by millions more from their national senatorial committees as well as political action committees and other outside groups. Attack ads often try to tie the candidates to the tops of their tickets — Blunt to GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump, and Kander to Democrat Hillary Clinton.
It's a connection both men tend to shy away from. Both skipped their parties' national convention this summer.
Clinton is rarely mentioned in Kander campaign appearances. Normally congenial with reporters, Blunt bristled Thursday following a campaign appearance in suburban St. Louis when asked once again if he continues to back Trump.
"Asked and answered like 10 times in the last week and the answer's still the same," Blunt said. "As long as the choice is Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton ... Hillary Clinton will not change the Obamacare disaster, the out of control regulators, or our terrible foreign policy. I think with a Republican Congress that he (Trump) may be able to do that."
The two candidates have debated just once, along with three lesser-known candidates at a forum on Sept. 30 in Branson. Kander spokeswoman Anne Feldman said Kander has agreed to three additional debates hosted by broadcast outlets in St. Louis, Kansas City and Springfield, but Blunt has refused.
Blunt spokesman Tate O'Connor said the campaign "continues to look for the best opportunities to talk with Missourians about the real issues that matter."