Missouri Democrat Claire McCaskill took away the seat of Republican Jim Talent on Tuesday in one of the nation’s tightest — and pivotal — Senate races.
After a $40 million contest that consumed thousands of campaign miles, election results confirmed what polls had predicted: a close race.
McCaskill opened up a 1 percentage-point lead as late-arriving results from the Kansas City and St. Louis areas offset advantages Talent held in earlier-reporting rural areas.
McCaskill had about 813,000 votes to Talent’s 799,000, with about 80 percent of statewide precincts reporting results. That amounted to roughly 49 percent support for McCaskill, compared with Talent’s 48 percent.
A crowd of Democratic supporters in St. Louis whooped and cheered as a large-screen TV showed McCaskill taking the lead.
“This is just about her doing a little better in rural counties and then obviously retaining our vote in the urban communities,” McCaskill spokeswoman Adrianne Marsh said. “We had a great turnout in those urban areas and as the numbers come in, it’s looking really favorable for us.”
The results included only about half the precincts in St. Louis County — the state’s most populated county and a place where McCaskill expected to outpoll Talent. Also missing were results from some rural areas, including Jasper County, a traditional Republican stronghold.
Talent’s margins in some rural counties were not as large as they were in his 2002 Senate victory, leading to optimism at McCaskill’s election watch party.
In Greene County, which includes Springfield, Talent had about 54 percent of the vote to McCaskill’s 43 percent — a roughly 11,000-vote advantage — with nearly all precincts reporting complete but unofficial results. In 2002, however, Talent got nearly 59 percent of the vote there — a roughly 16,000-vote advantage — that helped propel him to victory over Democratic Sen. Jean Carnahan.
Talent’s lead also was slightly smaller this year than in 2002 in St. Charles County, a suburban St. Louis county key to his victory over Carnahan four years ago. Talent got less than 54 percent of the vote there — giving him a roughly 12,000-vote advantage over McCaskill, as opposed to his 17,000 vote victory there in 2002.
Carnahan appeared Tuesday night at McCaskill’s watch party, expressing some of the first official signs of optimism for Democrats.
“There’s a report of a bluish glow against the fading red sky, and we hope that continues for the rest of the evening,” Carnahan said to hearty applause. “Voters went to the polls with a clear message in mind. They have said enough. No more of this ‘stay the course.’”
Democrats were hoping a McCaskill victory could help provide the six-seat gain needed to wrest control of the Senate away from Republicans.
Hundreds of supporters packed a ballroom at a downtown Kansas City hotel, where McCaskill received an enthusiastic reception before departing for a similar watch party in St. Louis. She alluded to Talent commercials questioning whether her family had paid all its taxes — an implication she has rebutted as a false “smear.”
“We know that we can do better, and we’ve had enough,” McCaskill told supporters. “I really believe tonight when all the votes are counted, Missourians will reject the politics of personal character attacks and embrace the power of solving problems.”
A short while later, Talent told more than 200 supporters at a St. Louis County hotel that he was “cautiously optimistic.”
“It’s going to be a long night, but let’s enjoy it,” Talent said.
Earlier in the day, Talent expressed frustration about having to run against voter discontent with President Bush and scandals involving other Republican officials. But he said he thinks his own record will matter most to Missouri voters.
“Win or lose, this has been my campaign,” Talent said. “I’m not ready to say that people outside Missouri won or lost this for me.”
The war in Iraq and several high profile ballot issues — especially one engraving the right to conduct embryonic stem cell research into the Missouri Constitution — played a prominent role in the Missouri Senate race.
McCaskill called for a redeployment from Iraq within two years and prominently supported the stem cell initiative. Talent opposed the amendment, saying it would allow the cloning and destruction of early human life, and tried to characterize McCaskill as weak on terrorists.
After voting Tuesday, McCaskill visited an adult day care center near downtown St. Louis, where about 20 elderly and disabled people gave her a warm welcome.
“We need a change in the government,” said Betty Black, 60, a former nursing home employee from St. Louis. “We are tired of the negative stuff that’s going on.”
“That’s like music to my ears,” McCaskill said.
But Columbia high school teacher Austin Reed, 24, said Talent deserves more time to prove himself.
“People jump to change too quick,” said Reed, who voted for President Bush two years ago but went with Al Gore in 2000. “It’s easy to point a finger and say something’s wrong.”