JEFFERSON CITY — Former Missouri Treasurer Sarah Steelman launched a challenge Wednesday to Democratic U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, seeking to gain some early momentum by becoming the first Republican to enter the 2012 race for the Missouri Senate seat.
Steelman announced her candidacy on a revamped website that now declares "Sarah Steelman for U.S. Senate 2012."
"I want to do my part in fighting for America's future," she said in the online message. "That's why I have decided to run for the United States Senate."
She quickly followed that with a Twitter message: "I'm running for US Senate because I believe in the American dream which is more freedom NOT more government."
Republicans are likely to highlight McCaskill's ties to President Barack Obama, who has grown increasingly unpopular in Missouri since narrowly losing the state to Republican Sen. John McCain in 2008. McCaskill was an early Obama supporter in the presidential campaign and has remained an ally of him in the Senate while simultaneously cultivating an independent streak from many Democrats in her staunch opposition to spending earmarks. She is chairwoman of a Senate subcommittee that investigates potential abuses in government contracting.
Other prominent Republicans considering the race include former U.S. Sen. Jim Talent, whom McCaskill narrowly defeated in 2006. Talent recently told The Associated Press that he plans to make a decision by early 2011. A Talent spokeswoman did not immediately respond Wednesday to a request for comment about Steelman's announcement.
McCaskill issued a statement that cast Steelman as a political insider — a pre-emptive shot at Steelman's potential to claim the outsider role embraced successfully by many candidates nationwide in this year's elections.
"I'm confident that Treasurer Steelman, as a long-time politician, will run a very strong race," McCaskill said. "I look forward to our exchange of ideas."
Steelman was on jury duty Wednesday and was not immediately available for further comment, said Steelman associate Jeff Layman.
Missouri Democratic Party spokesman Ryan Hobart welcomed the potential of a Republican primary for the right to challenge McCaskill — something Republican Party leaders would still like to avoid. He called Steelman "an extreme right-wing clone of Sarah Palin" and Talent "a former lobbyist and long-time Washington insider."
"Neither of these flawed candidates possesses the tenacity and independence to move this country forward and help turn this economy around," Hobart said.
Steelman, 52, of Rolla, served as state treasurer from 2005 to 2009 and had considered running to replace retiring Republican Sen. Kit Bond in the 2010 elections. She ultimately deferred to U.S. Rep. Roy Blunt, who won the Senate race, and she served as chairwoman of a coalition dubbed "Small Businessmen and Women for Blunt." In that role, Steelman kept up her own profile by traveling to various political functions and speaking on behalf of Blunt. Although Blunt was not actively backed by many tea party participants, Steelman has gained a following among them.
Her support for Blunt was a party-unifying move for Steelman, who in 2008 gained a reputation as a maverick by challenging the party establishment pick, U.S. Rep. Kenny Hulshof, in a Republican primary for governor. Steelman lost the primary, and Hulshof later was soundly defeated by Democrat Jay Nixon.
A former state economist and college instructor, Steelman defeated the Democratic chairman of the state Senate Appropriations Committee in her political debut in 1998. She served in the state Senate until becoming treasurer in 2005. Her husband is David Steelman, a prominent Republican lawyer who ran for attorney general against Nixon in 1992.