The Missouri Senate race has shaped up to be one of the most unexpected opportunities for Democrats to flip a seat this November.
But unlike many Democrats looking for an advantage by tying their opponents to Trump, Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander's campaign could actually benefit from Trump's outsider message. The underdog has staked his campaign on being a Washington outsider -- painting his opponent, incumbent Roy Blunt, as a lobbyist-beholden insider.
Kander's surprising success has caught the attention of national groups. Friday morning, Senate Leadership Fund released a new add, first on CNN, attempting to tie Kander to other Democrats. The ad from the Republican group linked to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and his allies features Kander's face morphing into that of Hillary Clinton, President Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi and Bernie Sanders.
"Kander is a very talented politician and all of his ads portray him as someone who's beyond ideology and beyond and party, and in fact it's somewhat reminiscent of the way that Barack Obama first presented himself in 2008," said Senate Leadership Fund President Steven Law. "The challenge here is to overcome that fresh-face image and drive home the fact that this is someone who has a long track record and very strong ideological views."
A Monmouth poll released this week has Blunt leading Kander by only 2 points, 46% to 44%, essentially tied within the 4.9 percentage point margin of error. CNN has ranked it a toss-up. Trump led Clinton by 5 points, 46% to 41%, just outside the margin of error, in the same poll.
But you won't find joint Clinton-Kander yard signs anywhere driving around blue St. Louis, and Clinton has spent no money on ads in Missouri, focusing on a path to 270 electoral votes that doesn't need Missouri's 10. Trump's campaign has followed suit, also spending no money on advertising and letting a mostly grass-roots campaign maintain his natural lead.
Kander, a 35-year-old Afghanistan veteran and former state legislator, may not mind Clinton's absence in the state.
He maintains that he has not tailored his "new generation" message to Trump. His announcement video in February 2015, before Trump had announced his candidacy, already included his pitch about Washington needing new blood less beholden to partisan politics.
But the Trump effect has played into Kander's hands. While Kander calls Trump "not qualified to be President," he told CNN in an interview that he understands and can speak to the Trump voter.
"I understand why in this gridlock that exists in our national conversation, people would in their search for shaking up that conversation be interested in considering someone who is in my opinion not qualified," he said when asked about the Trump-Kander voter. "So people do want change, and they want authenticity."
In an hour-long debate between Blunt, Kander and the three other third-party candidates for the seat here in Branson two weeks ago, the presidential race barely registered. Blunt attacked Kander using Clinton only once, to say Clinton supported a compromise Blunt negotiated with Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington on Zika funding. Trump never came up at all, and Blunt specifically avoided saying Trump's name when he said the "next president" will reshape the court.
Asked about whether Trump's outsider message is a drag on his campaign in a very brief Q&A with reporters after the debate, Blunt tried to make the case that their campaigns were complementary before ending the availability.
"I think it's really in line with the things I've been talking about," Blunt said, citing burdensome regulations on Missouri. "If you're going to do something about Obamacare ... I think you're going to need something more than the third term of Barack Obama."
He only mentioned Trump once, to say, "I think Donald Trump is a guy who would return more responsibility back to the Congress," citing his own push for legislation that would require congressional votes on certain regulations.
After a tape of explosive sexually aggressive and lewd comments from Trump was leaked last week, Blunt condemned the comments without revoking support of the Republican.
"Donald Trump's statements were disrespectful and inappropriate, and he was right to apologize," Blunt tweeted.
Blunt is getting plenty of help from outside Missouri, as is Kander. Between outside groups, the campaigns and party committees, more than $16 million is scheduled to be spent on the race already, roughly $5 million for Kander and $11 million for Blunt, according to ad tracking firm CMAG/Kantar Media.
That doesn't include spending from groups like the Koch brothers linked Americans for Prosperity, who can run issue-based advertising attacking or benefiting candidates.
Blunt called Susan B. Anthony List President Marjorie Dannenfelser last week to raise more money, and the PAC for the conservative anti-abortion group is planning to spend $500,000 in the state on in-person, digital and mail outreach.
Both candidates have been the beneficiary of the races in Florida and Ohio slipping away from Democrats. With those battlegrounds less winnable, Senate hopes have caused an influx of money into the Show Me State.
Attack ads have saturated Missouri airwaves. Blunt has been attacked as a Washington insider, including a Kander ad that notes Blunt's wife and adult children are all lobbyists and accuses him of conflicts of interest. Kander, meanwhile, has been attacked for his F rating by the National Rifle Association and ads that try to paint him as an extreme liberal politician.
Kander has fought back with one of the most memorable ads of the election cycle, in which he assembles an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle blindfolded while talking about his military record and support for background checks, saying "I would like to see Roy Blunt do this."
The lack of a strong focus on the state by the Clinton campaign is a benefit, not a drag, to Dems' hopes of the Statehouse and Senate seat,
"It's in Kander's interest to have as much separation as possible, particularly outside of St. Louis and Kansas City," said University of Missouri-St. Louis politics professor Terrence Jones. "Kander is trying to run an outsider campaign against Blunt, and Hillary is another insider as Blunt is, so he'd just as soon be seen as separate from her."
The Kander, Clinton and gubernatorial campaigns have mostly run independently of each other while strategizing on how to boost all of them, according to state Democratic volunteers. Kander's campaign has been focused on voter registration drives. The campaign of Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Chris Koster, a former Republican state lawmaker, has been working on canvassing and get-out-the-vote efforts. And the Clinton campaign has been recruiting volunteers, phone banking to encourage identified Democrats to come join the efforts.
Former Missouri Democratic Chairman Mike Kelley was bullish that Kander could pull off an underdog win with the strategy.
"This should be a layup for Roy Blunt in Missouri," Kelley said. "He's not had some major scandal that has harmed his campaign or his ability to get re-elected, and the fact that it's so close, I do believe that this Senate seat is in play. And with the resources coming in from out of state, with the solid gubernatorial candidate that we have, with the excitement, with the nominees by Republicans, this could be the perfect storm for Jason Kander to pull this off."
A split-ticket electorate
Key to Kander's chances will be whether he can find split-ticket voters. Clinton's supporters are likely to vote for him, but a winning coalition will require peeling off some Republican support from Blunt.
While Missouri has been reliable for Republican presidential candidates in recent cycles, the governor's seat has been held by a Democrat and the other incumbent senator, Claire McCaskill, is also a Democrat.
Conversations with voters in the state also reveal a possibility of split tickets this fall.
The Trump office in St. Louis is run by volunteers unaffiliated with the party or the campaign, who raised money because they wanted a Trump-specific office. When the state GOP told them they could share space in existing offices, they turned elsewhere.
"They suggested we go to various existing offices for certain statewide or federal candidates. And we knew that the demographics didn't necessarily support that," said director Annette Read. "(The volunteers) weren't revolting, they just wanted a strictly Trump office."
Read said she wouldn't speak about Blunt's race, but noted one of the things she likes about Trump is his independence.
"I am not a fan of party politics, I'd rather we have no affiliation whatsoever," Read said. "I have always mainly supported Republican candidates because that's probably closest to my ideology, but I don't like the direction the Republican Party has gone. ... I see a lot of things behind the scenes, and (Blunt's) probably having a tougher year than most, but I'm not here to speak about those candidates."
Another volunteer in the office, Brinda Johnson, said she and her family are life-long Democrats, and she even went to the convention for Clinton in 2008. But she said after she read a book that attacks the Clinton Foundation and family, she switched her allegiance -- but only at the top. "I know I won't vote a straight Republican ticket," she said.
Near that office in Fenton, Missouri, at the local Fenton Days Festival, wellness company marketer Jenny Lutterman said she is committed to voting for Trump and sees a need for a Republican president. But she also had doubts about Blunt -- reminiscent of Kander's attack lines.
"I wish there was more of that, that people didn't vote straight tickets, because that's what's happened, we've gotten so divided," Lutterman said. "I'm not too fond of Roy Blunt. I just feel like he's really not for the people as much as he could be."