WASHINGTON — From the moment she was elected in 2006, defeating U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill became a top priority for the Missouri GOP in 2012.
A little more than a year before voters select a nominee, Republicans are facing a crowded primary, which could leave the eventual nominee worn down and with less cash by the time the general election campaign starts. Instead of one standard bearer in place to take the fight to McCaskill, the party has three potential candidates: former state Treasurer Sarah Steelman and Rep. Todd Akin, who have both entered the race, and St. Louis businessman John Brunner, who is considering a run.
Each brings something to the race. But none of them have the sort of statewide prominence and name recognition of McCaskill. It's a situation that means, until the primary in August 2012, Republicans will be focusing their energy on each other and wooing partisan voters.
Democrats couldn't be happier.
"We are gleeful over here," said Steve Bough, the Jackson County Democratic Party chairman. "Just watching the other side have a fistfight in the dugout before the game even starts? It's fantastic."
How the race shapes up will go a long way to determining whether Republicans can take back the Senate in 2012. Democrats currently hold a narrow 53-47 majority in the Senate, including two independents who caucus with Democrats. McCaskill's seat is one of the GOP's top targets.
"There is a broad interest in folks who want to see this become a Republican seat," said Lloyd Smith, the executive director of the Missouri Republican Party.
But even Smith concedes a primary jumble isn't the ideal scenario.
"If you had a personal preference, of course, you'd have a frontrunner with $5 million in the bank and no one else running," he said.
Of the current field, Steelman, 53, was the first to announce her candidacy. She is a former state senator who served as Missouri treasurer from 2005 to 2009 and had toyed with a challenge to then-Rep. Roy Blunt in the 2010 Republican Senate primary before ultimately deciding to campaign for Blunt. Steelman also gained a following among some tea party activists.
She also has a track record of scratchy relations with the state's Republican establishment. In 2008, she challenged the pick of the state's GOP establishment, Rep. Kenny Hulshof, in the GOP gubernatorial primary. She lost but wounded Hulshof, who was later beaten by Democrat Jay Nixon.
Steelman's fundraising numbers for the first quarter of 2011 put her well behind McCaskill. She had roughly $194,000 in her campaign account at the end of March, a fraction of McCaskill's $1.9 million.
But Steelman is familiar to Missouri voters. Brunner, who has said he could partially fund his own campaign, is a virtual unknown. The 59-year-old from the St. Louis suburb of Frontenac is the chairman of Missouri-based Vi-Jon, a health care manufacturer, and would bring business bona fides. But he lacks an established track record like his potential primary opponents or McCaskill.
Akin, who announced his candidacy Tuesday, is a St. Louis-area congressman who notes he is a member of the tea party caucus in Congress. The 63-year-old is a fiscal and social conservative who has a 98 percent voting record with the American Conservative Union. Akin is also the candidate who, at the moment, is the most competitive with McCaskill in terms of fundraising. He had about $910,000 in his campaign account at the end of the first quarter.
Akin's appeal has never been tested outside of his district, however. In six terms in Congress he hasn't faced a competitive race since his first primary more than a decade ago.
Steelman has wasted little time in mixing it up with Akin. Just a day after he entered the race, she lambasted him for his support of the federal budget compromise. In a statement, Steelman said Akin and other House Republicans behaved like "toothless dragons."
McCaskill, meanwhile, has had her own problems.
She was tripped up by revelations about a plane she co-owns with her husband, businessman Joseph Shepard.
Earlier this year, McCaskill paid the U.S. Treasury $88,000 to cover flight costs after she received reimbursements for 89 trips in Missouri. She then acknowledged that at least one of those trips was for political purposes, when she traveled from St. Louis to Hannibal for a Democratic conference. McCaskill herself then revealed that she and her husband owed about $320,000 in back property taxes, interest and penalties related to the plane, which she has paid.
McCaskill says she plans to sell the plane.
Republicans and Democrats argue about how much the plane episode damaged McCaskill. Democrats point to polls that showed little movement in her approval rating before and after the news came to light. Republicans, though, say they will make an issue of it ahead of next year's election. Smith said Republicans will also work to highlight McCaskill's ties to President Barack Obama, who narrowly lost the state in 2008.
"It's a little early for individual candidates to take a strong swing at Senator McCaskill," he said. "There's plenty of time to do that."
But Smith said he is confident Republicans will field a candidate who will beat the incumbent.
McCaskill's Senate office declined to comment on the race ahead, deferring to the Missouri Democratic Party. Party spokeswoman Caitlin Legacki said Republicans have a weak field and that Democrats are confident McCaskill will prevail.
"There's no clear frontrunner and this will likely drag on until the final days of the primary," Legacki said. "... We're extremely confident she'll have the support from voters and the resources she needs to be re-elected in November 2012."