SEDALIA — Missouri's closely watched U.S. Senate campaign moved Thursday to the Missouri State Fair as Democrat Claire McCaskill and Republican challenger Todd Akin focused on rural and farm issues while campaigning around a big-top tent.
Akin, who has said he opposes a federal farm bill because of concern about the cost for food stamps and other entitlement programs within it, questioned Thursday whether the federal government should be involved in the national school lunch program.
Asked by reporters about the lunch program, Akin asked why the states could not handle student lunches. He said he thinks the federal government generally should stay out of education issues.
"I'm not against school lunches, but I have a question of whether or not the federal government should be doing as many things as it's doing. And that would be one I'd take a look at," Akin said.
McCaskill, who is facing a difficult re-election bid, said the federal lunch program helps schools feed children, boosts the agricultural economy by creating a use for excess farm products and helps to keep markets stable for consumers and producers.
"School lunches are an important part of the education experience, and I would not want those costs to be passed along to either the public school systems or the state and local taxpayers," she said.
Figures from the U.S. Department of Agriculture show that in 2011, an average of 646,000 Missouri students participated in the lunch program. Nationwide, the lunch program cost more than $11 billion and included more than 30 million participants.
Both U.S. Senate candidates were campaigning Thursday at an annual ham breakfast at the state fairgrounds in Sedalia. The breakfast, hosted each year by the governor, is attended by numerous politicians, government officials and others.
The breakfast highlighted a rural bent to U.S. Senate campaign in the week since Akin won a three-way Republican primary on Aug. 7. McCaskill camped out at the state fairgrounds Wednesday night before the breakfast started and is in the middle of a tour through several rural areas that wraps up Saturday. Akin, who has represented a suburban St. Louis congressional district for the past dozen years, last week won the endorsement from the Missouri Farm Bureau's political committee, which has a history of endorsing the GOP candidate for Senate and governor.
McCaskill said she has a strong agricultural record, having fought "like a scalded cat" to keep rural post offices open, pushed to get disaster relief for farmers dealing flooding and opposed budget earmarks by individual lawmakers. She also contrasted her support for the federal farm bill to Akin's opposition.
Nonetheless, McCaskill acknowledged that appearing on the ballot as a Democrat could prove to be a disadvantage in wooing voters in the rural areas.
"I feel pretty comfortable that if I can get out to rural Missouri and run on my record — supporting the farm bill, fighting regulations — I feel pretty comfortable that there's some votes out there I can get," McCaskill said.
Speaking to a different crowd after the breakfast, Akin raised concerns about the federal estate tax, which frequently is called the "death tax" by opponents. He also called for reining in federal regulations during a news conference with several fellow Missouri Republicans serving in Congress.
"What do we have in the EPA and these other agencies? They write their own rules, they enforce their own rules and if you don't like it, they're the court that you have to go to," Akin said. "There's something wrong about this. And these agencies, we're going to have to hold their feet to the fire and have them stop making up some of the things that they did."