SPRINGFIELD, MO – Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO) was having a good day on the campaign trail, when yet another Donald Trump controversy popped up. The biggest one yet.
Blunt had just finished up an event at his alma mater Missouri State University, where he got to inform the school’s chorale group they would be performing at January’s inauguration, prompting joyous tears among the singers. He was on his way to an Obamacare roundtable with health insurance professionals, where he would be able to tease out GOP talking points against the Affordable Care Act, while showing off his policy chops.
But in the hour between those two events dropped the latest Trump bomb, a tape where he bragged about grabbing women by their genitals and the star power that allowed him to get away with it.
The outrage over the Trump video presented a nightmare for every Republican in a tough re-election. But for Blunt, who has patrician manners and a country-club-dad look, the Trump calculus is particularly complicated. The senator is actually lagging behind Trump in Missouri polling, and in Blunt’s southwest Missouri base, Trump is king.
So while other vulnerable GOPers chose the moment to finally cut bait with Trump, Blunt stood by the Republican nominee Saturday, when he was ready to weigh in on Trump’s remarks.
“I think if you want to solve the problems that have been created over the last eight years, you can’t have a third Obama administration,” Blunt told TPM, after speaking to a local conservative group, the 7th District Missouri Republican Assembly. “So he needs to be vigorous in explaining how he is a different man than that person, but how he hopes to lead the country and I think he may very well get that done.”
Beyond the real estate mogul’s popularity in the state, Trump’s anti-establishment message isn’t doing any favors for the senator, who previously served seven terms in the U.S. House. Democrats label Blunt the “insider’s insider” and part of “the problem” Trump has tapped into, even as they condemn Trump. The challenge for Blunt and his defenders is how to sell Republican voters rallying around their outsider nominee on the idea that a lawmaker who has spent two decades in Washington deserves to stay.
“On the 20th of January, America is going to change, for better or worse,” said Scott McGill, the leader of the 7th District Missouri Republican Assembly. “This is not a time to send somebody else to D.C. who is now going to spend the next year or two learning the ropes, when Senator Blunt knows the ropes, he truly loves America and that’s what he is fighting for.”
Roy Blunt with his son Charlie at the 50th Apple Butter Makin’ Days Parade in Mount Vernon, Missouri. (Tierney Sneed for TPM.)
The message has been a delicate needle to thread. In Blunt’s pitch, Trump’s burn-it-all-down rhetoric has been honed down to a fight against Obama-era federal overreach. Blunt is not an insider, the argument goes, but someone who has the “seniority and longevity” to represent the state, as one state senator put it at a local Chamber of Commerce event near Springfield, Missouri, Friday.
“The longevity becomes an add, at some point, that helps you do the job,” the senator, Jay Wasson, told TPM at the event. “I always will say, you need a few years to even know what you are doing.”
The campaign itself has appeared to embraced this messaging. It has employed the hashtag #RoyDelivers and runs ads in which Blunt boasts about his bipartisan achievements. At the Missouri State University event, Blunt’s chairmanship of the Senate Rules Committee was cited as helping secure the chorale group the inauguration gig.
“If anybody can work their way through congressional gridlock, it’s me,” Blunt told TPM Saturday. “But what voters should be and are concerned about is the continuation of the policies of the last eight years. And I think the place to make that change is clearly the White House, and then to do the kinds of things that I have been advocating, to get the regulators under control, to get spending under control.”
Mike Parson, the Republican running for lieutenant governor, explained that Trump was doing well in the state because “Missourians are going to want change, they’re going to want a change in how things are done in this country, and I think right now they’re looking at him to make those changes.”
But when it came to Blunt, Parson said the senator’s Washington record would work in his favor.
“You know who he is, and I think that’s a good thing about somebody. Much better than the unknown, sometimes,” Parson told TPM. “I mean, you look at what the other candidates believe, whether it be Kander, you know fundamentally there are just a lot of things that I don’t believe in that he does.”
Democrats nonetheless see the unique circumstances Trump has created in the conservative state as ripening their effort to unseat Blunt, and believe they have the perfect challenger in the form of Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander.
“[Kander’s] facing an opponent who is effectively the mayor of Washington, D.C, for the last 20 years. He’s the insider’s insider’s insider and that’s not exactly the profile people are looking for in this year,” Missouri Democratic Party Chair Roy Temple told TPM. “It’s kind of a perfect storm to give Jason an opportunity in a challenging state, and he is forcing that opportunity as well.”
Mindy Mazur, who managed the campaign of the Democrat who unsuccessfully ran against Blunt in 2010, said Blunt was not particularly strong in that Senate race but benefited from that cycle’s anti-Obamacare fervor.
“Jason Kander has a solid resume of public service that is really selfless in nature, compared to Senator Blunt who has a long record of self-service,” Mazur said, referring to various scandals stemming from the Blunt family’s lobbying ties. “And I think that contrast is much more apparent this cycle, because in the previous Senate race there was a lot of noise with regard to Obamacare and that election ultimately ended up being a referendum on that.”
The Democratic nominee is a clean-cut, well-spoken 35-year-old who served as an Army captain in the Afghanistan war. Democrats see Kander as 2016’s star recruit and his recent ad — in which he put together a rifle while blind-folded, as a rebuttal to Blunt’s Second Amendment attacks — quickly emerged as a breakout of the cycle
“He will not let Roy Blunt tell Missourians what Jason Kander believes. Jason’s going to tell the voters himself,” Temple said.
In his term in the Missouri House, Kander racked up a progressive voting record, which the Blunt campaign has seized on to tie him to President Obama and Hillary Clinton. But Kander prefers to describe himself as someone “more interested in doing something than being something.”
“Probably one of the biggest difference between the two of us,” Kander told TPM last Thursday, referring to Blunt, “is that I recognize that these are real things happening in people’s lives and you can’t just address them one by one. You need a real comprehensive approach that takes into account how people experience this stuff.”
Kander was less crisp when asked about the Trump backers who, polling suggests, are also supporting his campaign. He quickly and repeatedly condemned Trump, but chose his words carefully when describing the overlap between his and Trump’s appeal.
“I also understand why, in a time when gridlock in Congress is now mirrored by gridlock in our national conversation, why people are turning to something, even if it’s somebody who I believe shouldn’t be president,” Kander said. “So that’s why you’re are seeing us get a lot of support from people who are” — pause — “no matter who they are voting for president. We’ve had events where you walk out of the event and there’s folks arguing Trump versus Clinton, but they’re all at our event.”
Trump is leading Clinton in the state 46 percent to 41 percent, according to TPM’s Poll Tracker Average, though a week ago, before his hot mic moment became public, his advantage looked twice as large. Public polling averages show Blunt’s margin over Kander to be much tighter — with a poll out Wednesday showing a 2-point lead — and the New York Times reported that internal polling shows the Democrat actually has the advantage.
“The public polling averages about four, which in our state is probably about right,” Blunt told TPM Saturday, referring to models that at a time showed him having a three or five percentage point advantage. “Unless your opponent makes some huge mistake, a four-point race, a six-point race in Missouri is a good win.”
According to James Harris, a GOP consultant who has done some work for the Blunt campaign, Missouri is no stranger to tight statewide races and a swing of a few percentage points, or 100,000 votes, amounts to a solid victory.
“I think those voters will come back [to Blunt], if you will,” Harris told TPM. “I think Jason might have peaked a little too quick, because Republicans are able to run back — we still have a couple weeks.”
Indeed, outside money on both sides has already poured into the state. Blunt has benefited from a super PAC aligned with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and from donations from groups tied to the Koch Brothers, while national Dems have also zeroed in on Kander as a key win to take back the Senate. And it is expected to get more intense, with the Clinton campaign looking to expand her map and a pro-Clinton super PAC jumping into Democratic Senate races.
“Donald Trump, in some ways — except for the most extreme elements of the base — has become a walking Republican voter suppression machine,” Temple said. “They may never make the trip all the way over to Hillary, but I wonder if there is a significant number of them that will just not be able bring themselves to show up at the polling place on Tuesday, and vote for Donald Trump, and those are votes Roy Blunt absolutely must have to survive.”
Blunt does not appear too eager to stake his race on riding Trump’s coattails either. During a stump speech in his old district Saturday, the day after the Trump hot mic tape came out, Blunt bashed Obamacare, “out-of-control regulators” and the “Obama vision,” but mentioned Trump by name not once.