JEFFERSON CITY — Fewer than 50,000 votes separated Democratic challenger Claire McCaskill and Republican incumbent Jim Talent in Missouri's 2006 U.S. Senate race — a difference of only about a dozen votes from each precinct. McCaskill won.
Now McCaskill and Talent may be headed toward a role-reversal rematch in the 2012 elections. This time, McCaskill will be the incumbent. And Talent could be the challenger.
Although no one is officially a candidate yet, the 2012 political season already is quietly under way as potential candidates are calling around to prospective contributors and party stalwarts to gauge their support. The candidacy intrigue centers mainly on the Republican Party, because Democrats already have incumbents in the U.S. Senate, governor's office and most other statewide offices up for re-election in Missouri.
Talent, who served four years in the Senate, is among the most well-known Republicans pondering a 2012 Senate campaign. So is former state Treasurer Sarah Steelman. Talent hopes to make a decision about the Senate race by early 2011.
"I am seriously considering it," Talent said in an interview. "I do feel like this is a time where everybody has to think about what they can do to help the country. This is an obvious possibility for me. I have done it before, and I think I could put on a strong race."
Talent is accustomed to close races. Then a St. Louis-area congressman, Talent lost the 2000 governor's race by a single percentage point but bounced back to win a special 2002 Senate election by a similar margin. In 2006, McCaskill's victory margin over Talent was a little more than 2 percentage points.
Talent outspent McCaskill in that race by more than $4 million. Now it is McCaskill who has more than $800,000 in her Senate campaign account and Talent who would be starting from zero.
Several other dynamics have changed as well.
McCaskill won in 2006 partly because of a voter backlash against President George W. Bush and the war in Iraq.
In an exit poll conducted for the AP and television networks, one-third of those surveyed said their 2006 Missouri Senate vote was a means of expressing opposition to the president, and nearly all those people picked McCaskill. About two-fifths of voters said the Iraq war was extremely important in their decision in the Senate race, and more than four-fifths of McCaskill's voters disapproved of the war.
Now McCaskill is the one linked to an unpopular president. She was an early supporter of Barack Obama during his 2008 presidential campaign. And she has backed Obama on some of his most prominent policies, including the health care overhaul and economic stimulus act.
In Missouri's 2010 Senate race, an exit poll conducted by Edison Research for the AP and TV networks showed nearly six in 10 voters disapproved of Obama's job performance. And about eight of every 10 voters in that group preferred the victorious Republican candidate, Roy Blunt, over Democratic Senate candidate Robin Carnahan. In August, Missouri voters overwhelmingly passed a ballot measure attempting to defy a key part of the federal health care overhaul requiring most people to have insurance by 2014 or face penalties.
Circumstances could change before the 2012 election. But based on the current political climate, a Republican Senate candidate could benefit from a similar desire for a new direction that aided McCaskill in 2006.
Steelman declined to give any timeframe for making a decision about the Senate race. She found herself at a similar crossroads in 2009 as she pondered whether to jump into the Republican primary to replace retiring GOP Sen. Kit Bond. She decided not to run and instead served as chairwoman of a coalition dubbed "Small Businessmen and Women for Blunt." It was a party unifying move for Steelman, who two years earlier gained a reputation as a maverick by challenging the party establishment pick, Rep. Kenny Hulshof, in a Republican primary for governor.
Steelman said her decision on the 2012 Senate race will not be based on what any other potential candidate decides to do.
"I'm very seriously considering the U.S. Senate race against Sen. McCaskill," Steelman said. "I've been talking to people around the state — I've had a lot of encouragement, very positive feedback."
Another potential Senate candidate mentioned by Republicans is Ann Wagner, a former state party chairwoman who served as ambassador to Luxembourg from 2005 to 2009.
Wagner has set up a fundraising committee for a possible run for chairwoman of the Republican National Committee in January. A victory there likely would preclude her Senate candidacy. A loss would not. But Wagner also is co-chair of the American Freedom and Enterprise Foundation, which was created by Talent, and the two are not likely to run against each other in a primary.
Republican attorney Ed Martin, who narrowly lost a challenge against Democratic U.S. Rep. Russ Carnahan this year, said some supporters have urged him to take on McCaskill in 2012. But he considers himself a "second tier" Senate candidate and also is considering other statewide races. Martin described Talent as "one of the finest public servants we have ever had."
"I think if Jim Talent wants to run, he is the leading candidate and odds on favorite" among Republicans, Martin said.