JEFFERSON CITY — Standing in front of about 100 supporters seated on the folding chairs of a Teamsters union hall, U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill recently laid out the centerpiece of her re-election strategy in Missouri. It was prefaced with a warning of sorts.
"There are some of you who won't like me to say this," McCaskill told the Democratic loyalists. "But ... I'm a moderate. I believe in compromise."
"Compromise" is not a word regularly uttered by McCaskill's three leading Republican opponents — U.S. Rep. Todd Akin, former state Treasurer Sarah Steelman and businessman John Brunner. When it is spoken, it is not generally in favorable terms. Instead, some of the Republicans have been emphasizing their commitment to stand firm for conservative values — essentially mounting a no-compromise campaign.
The contrasting messages could provide an interesting choice for voters in the November election. Do you prefer principle over pragmatism? Or results over resolve?
There are a variety of reasons for the differing rhetoric coming from the Democratic incumbent and her Republican challengers.
One factor may be the current stage of the 2012 campaign season. In a primary, candidates must appeal to the party faithful, who tend to be more conservative (for Republicans) or more liberal (for Democrats) than the population as a whole. After winning a primary, candidates often move toward the center to pick up votes from independents.
Because McCaskill has no Democratic opposition in the Aug. 7 primary, she can afford to take a more centrist approach far earlier in the campaign.
Another factor in candidates' contrasting approaches may be the state's political tendencies. Although Missouri has a history as a swing state, voters in the Show-Me State also have earned a reputation of being a little more conservative than residents on the East and West coasts. And although Democrats currently hold most of Missouri's statewide executive offices, many political scientists say the state has increasingly leaned toward Republicans — citing, among other things, the inability of President Barack Obama to win Missouri in 2008 despite easily carrying the national vote.
"A Democrat winning statewide in Missouri has to say that he or she will work with Republicans, because there are more Republicans than Democrats in the state among the voters," said David Kimball, an associate professor of political science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
So perhaps it's not surprising that McCaskill told the crowd at the Springfield union hall: "I don't dislike my Republican colleagues. I work with them."
In that regard, the ability to compromise is a matter of political survival for McCaskill.
Yet McCaskill is not the only one espousing compromise as a virtue.
Former Republican Sen. John Danforth, who represented Missouri in Washington for 18 years, recently delivered a speech in St. Louis declaring that "government is broken" because of the uncompromising nature of partisan politics. Danforth called for everyone to give a little, suggesting Republicans should consent to a tax increase and Democrats should concede to substantial changes in entitlement programs.
Brunner has said he's willing to work with anyone in Washington, so long as they are willing to work with him and — ideally — follow his lead.
"People have been trying to compromise in Washington, D.C., for years and nothing gets done," said Brunner spokesman Todd Abrajano. But "when somebody takes a principled leadership stance, other people have a tendency to follow."
During his dozen years in Congress, Akin has co-sponsored some bills with Democrats. But during a speech to the Missouri Republican State Convention, he highlighted some high-profile instances when he refused to compromise — touting his opposition to the federal No Child Left Behind Act in 2001 and what he dubbed the "Wall Street bailout" bill in 2008.
"What we think the people of Missouri want is someone who is going to stand strong on those conservative principles," said Akin spokesman Ryan Hite. He added: "It's really not popular right now to go around and say, 'We want to compromise with the Democrats.' That's what (House Speaker John) Boehner's done, and it hasn't gotten us anywhere."
Conservative websites have been circulating a fundraising email sent by Steelman in which she declares: "I'm a no-compromise conservative woman."
"Compromise has become, to a lot of people, selling out or giving in," said Steelman spokesman Patrick Tuohey. He added: "People want to draw a line, and they want to be confident that their candidate gets to Washington and doesn't fall prey to the leadership that say, 'Hey, we need your vote on this one.'"
Associate Professor Mitchell McKinney, who teaches courses on political communication at the MU, views the Republicans' reluctance to embrace compromise as an extension of the tea-party inspired, anti-government sentiment that propelled Republican victories in the 2010 elections. Yet McKinney said there also is an emerging theme among other candidates trying to tap into the public's desire for politicians to work together on difficult problems.
Which sentiment is stronger? That's what voters will decide.
David A. Lieb has covered state government and politics for The Associated Press since 1995. He can be reached at http://twitter.com/DavidALieb.