JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri Republicans will have a self-described conservative as their challenger to Democratic U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill. Exactly who that will be remains to be decided.
The leading candidates in Tuesday's Republican Senate primary — suburban St. Louis businessman John Brunner, former state Treasurer Sarah Steelman of Rolla, and U.S. Rep. Todd Akin of suburban St. Louis — all portray themselves as the best suited to carry a conservative agenda to Washington. The winner will face McCaskill, who is unopposed in the Democratic primary.
The matchup between the Republican nominee and McCaskill will be one of several pivotal races nationwide as Republicans seek to take control of the Senate away from Democrats. Conservative interest groups already have spent millions of dollars on ads attacking McCaskill, prompting an advertising rebuttal from groups supporting her.
Defeating McCaskill was a top priority for James Baumgartner, a retired state chemist. He voted for Steelman early Tuesday in Jefferson City.
"I want to make damn sure that somebody defeats Claire McCaskill, and I think maybe she has that opportunity, because she's a woman," Baumgartner said.
Brandon Gillaspie, an Orscheln Farm & Home purchasing manager in Columbia, voted for Akin but said any of the three Republicans would be better than McCaskill, who he believes is too supportive of the Obama administration.
"It was a tight race," Gillaspie said. "I would have voted for any of the three of them against McCaskill. Frankly, it's time for a change. Any one of them would be better than what we've got."
John Bubb, a software engineer from Fenton, voted for Bruner, although he said his support was lukewarm.
"I'm not entirely happy with some of the things he has said in public. I'm concerned he does not state positions clearly. But I will not vote for the other two," Bubb said.
He said Steelman is on the wrong side of many positions. He admires Akin for sticking to his principles, "but his principles differ from mine on many issues" including Akin's more hawkish stance on war.
McCaskill, 59, is seeking a second, six-year term in the Senate to cap a lengthy political resume that includes time spent as state auditor, a state lawmaker and a county prosecutor in the Kansas City area. For better or worse, McCaskill is linked to President Barack Obama. She was one of his earliest supporters during his 2008 campaign and has stood by the president on two of his most high-profile laws — the 2010 health care overhaul and the 2009 stimulus act.
The Republican candidates have played up McCaskill's ties to Obama while vowing to try to repeal the health care law. They all contend that the best way to improve the economy is by limiting government debt, taxes, spending and regulations.
Because they share few substantive policy differences, the Republican candidates have sought to distinguish themselves by emphasizing their personal backgrounds, through competing endorsements and by casting doubt on whether others can be trusted to carry out the conservative cause.
Brunner, 60, is the former CEO and chairman of Vi-Jon Inc., which makes Germ-X hand sanitizer and other personal health care products. He poured more than $7.5 million into his campaign to finance ads that touted his manufacturing experience and cast Akin and Steelman as "career politicians." He also has benefited from millions more spent on advertising by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and has the support of a conservative political organization, FreedomWorks for America.
Steelman, 54, has trumpeted the endorsement of the Tea Party Express and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who remains popular among some conservatives after running as the 2008 Republican nominee for vice president. In a TV ad, Palin described Steelman as an economist "who defends our tax dollars like a momma grizzly defends her cubs." Palin even served barbecued pork sandwiches with Steelman at a rural picnic the weekend before the election. A former Missouri treasurer and state senator, Steelman has loaned her campaign several hundred thousand dollars and been aided by a political committee that has spent several hundred thousand more on ads attacking Brunner's conservative credentials.
Akin, 65, decided to run for Senate instead of seeking a seventh term in Congress. He's familiar with tight primaries. Akin won election to the U.S. House in 2000 after surviving a five-way Republican primary in which he edged out the second-place finisher by a mere 66 votes out of nearly 58,000 cast. Akin frequently highlights the fact that he was rated as Missouri's most conservative member in Congress. His Senate campaign commercials have featured the praise of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who was a presidential candidate in 2008. Unlike the others, Akin has refrained from running negative ads against his Republican rivals.