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GOP Has Big Hopes For Missouri Senate Race

Republicans hope to win control of the U.S. Senate from Democrats in November, and one seat they have high hopes for is in Missouri.

Democratic incumbent Claire McCaskill is facing a tough re-election fight. Outside conservative groups have already been running ads against her. On Tuesday, Republicans will select their candidate for the fall.

Meet The Candidates

In Neosho, Mo., on the edge of the Ozarks, summertime in an election year can only mean one thing: the Newton County Republican Party's watermelon fest.

On an evening still hot after a day of triple-digit temperatures, folks eagerly line up as members of the Republican Women's Club slice pieces of the big melons.

It will be a crowded Republican ballot next Tuesday, with contested races for nearly all statewide offices. The three major Republicans running for the Senate nomination each have three minutes to make their case.

U.S. Rep. Todd Akin touted what he called his proven conservative voting record in Washington: "If you want somebody who is a genuine conservative and has taken the tough votes and paid the price politically for that, then you know that you've got a known quantity as a conservative in Todd Akin."

Sarah Steelman, the former state treasurer, said she stands out from the other Republican candidates: "I have never been part of the good old boys club, and I never will be," she said. "And if you send me to the U.S. Senate, I'm not going to knock politely on that door and sneak in and close that door behind me.

Businessman John Brunner is making his first run for elective office in the Missouri Senate race.
Brian Naylor / NPR
Businessman John Brunner is making his first run for elective office in the Missouri Senate race.

"No, sir, I'm going to kick that door down, and I'm going to take every one of y'all with me, and we're going to rattle some cages."

Finally came John Brunner, a businessman making his first try at elective office: "I spent over 33 years in a small manufacturing business. ... I know what it's like to be on the receiving end of government regulations, on taxes, on high energy prices — because I'm absolutely convinced we can get this country turned around if we went back to American energy."

Conservative Credentials

Retiree Ben Lang says he has met and supports Brunner.

"He shares the same values that I have," Lang says. "I'm fearful for the direction the country's going in, and I have two wonderful grandchildren that I'm worried about. And I just don't like what the Senate's been doing for the last three or four years."

There are few substantive differences on the issues among the three Republicans. All are dyed-in-the-wool conservatives, in a state that seems to be all but out of reach for President Obama.

"They're all very conservative," says Ken Warren, a professor of political science at St. Louis University. "And the joke around Missouri has been that they're trying to 'out-conservatize,' so to speak, the other ones.

"They all really support Tea Party issues and [are] trying to essentially equate McCaskill with Obama because Obama is quite unpopular in the state of Missouri."

Big Money And High-Profile Endorsements

U.S. Rep. Todd Akin, R-Mo., who is seeking the GOP nomination for a Senate seat, has the backing of popular Republican Mike Huckabee.
Brian Naylor / NPR
U.S. Rep. Todd Akin, R-Mo., who is seeking the GOP nomination for a Senate seat, has the backing of popular Republican Mike Huckabee.

Still, it has been a wild and expensive race, fought largely on the airwaves.

Brunner, the businessman, has spent an astonishing amount of his own money — nearly $7 million — on his campaign.

Steelman has the endorsement of Sarah Palin, who cut a classic Palinesque ad on her behalf.

"Sarah is an economist who defends our tax dollars like a mama grizzly defends her cubs," Palin says in the ad. "Sarah Steelman earned her reputation as a conservative maverick."

And Akin, who has struggled to gain statewide name recognition beyond his base in the St. Louis suburbs, has an ad with his own endorsement from Mike Huckabee, the popular Republican and Fox News commentator.

"A Bible-based Christian, Todd Akin supports traditional marriage, defends the unborn and voted to defund Planned Parenthood," Huckabee says in the spot.

Even McCaskill has gotten into the act, running her own ads challenging the Republicans who hope to unseat her in November.

One ad backhandedly compliments Akin as a "crusader against bigger government" and then condemns him, saying he "would completely eliminate the departments of Education and Energy and privatize Social Security."

A recent St. Louis Post-Dispatch poll has Brunner leading Steelman and Akin. The same poll showed all three Republicans defeating McCaskill in the fall, giving even more weight to Tuesday's primary.

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NPR News' Brian Naylor is a correspondent on the Washington Desk. In this role, he covers politics and federal agencies.