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In Missouri Senate race, attacks are largely outsourced

Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander and U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt are the front runners for the Democratic and Republican nominations in the next Senate race.
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Fifteen months before the 2016 election, Missouri’s major candidates for the U.S. Senate – Republican incumbent Roy Blunt and Democrat Jason Kander – are ensnared in two familiar issues:

  • The use of private planes;
  • Accusations that each is too tied to special interests.

A key difference is that, for the most part, the attacks aren’t coming from the candidates or their campaigns. Rather, they’re being launched by party surrogates on their behalf.

The use of such outsiders allows the campaigns to focus more on promoting their own candidate, and avoid appearing too aggressive in attacking the rival.

But relying on other political groups also means the campaigns have no control over the surrogate message, since such help might otherwise run afoul of the federal campaign laws restricting coordination with outside groups.

Dave Robertson, head of the political science department at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, said such outsourcing is a national trend.

“This allows for specialization,” Robertson said. “These third-party groups can work to nationalize the election, while the individual candidate can try to make the election as local as possible for his positive message.”

The separation of duties also means that the candidates and their campaigns can claim to know little about the attacks being launched against their rival.

Pandas used to attack Kander

Kander, currently Missouri’s secretary of state, has become a target  of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. The group has particularly highlighted Kander’s fundraising events in Washington, D.C., often using a “tracker” to film Kander while he’s in the nation’s capital. (Both sides rely on “trackers," who are hired to follow a candidate around and film them.)

Some of that film footage is in the NRSC’s latest online video, released this week, which features live and costumed pandas to illustrate what the campaign committee calls “the Kander Pander.”

The NRSC also has set up a special attack website.

In the video, the group characterizes Kander as an “inexperienced yet ambitious politician.” He then is accused of “pandering to big money Democrats and lobbyists.”

The video offers no specifics to back up its assertion. Kander campaign spokesman Abe Rakov says that’s proof that the attack “is a sign of desperation from Sen. Blunt and his allies, who are clearly panicking about his chances for re-election because he has spent his career choosing his special-interest friends in Washington over his constituents in Missouri.”

Rakov countered by asserting that Blunt has a "war room'' in his official office to aid lobbyists, an accusation Blunt's spokesman denies.

Anti-Blunt jabs focus on charter planes

Meanwhile, Blunt – who has yet to formally announce his re-election plans – has come under fire from the Missouri Democratic Party over his use of chartered planes to travel the state for official events.

The state party issued a list of Blunt’s private-plane travels since 2014, which totaled almost $38,000 and covered by the senator’s official travel fund.

The party calculated the per-mile cost if Blunt had driven by car to the events and puts the taxpayer cost at a fraction of that amount. Chris Hayden, the Democratic Party staffer charged with monitoring Blunt, contended that the senator was misusing federal money. Hayden added that there's no record of Blunt using charter planes for official business prior to 2014.

Blunt’s congressional spokesman, Brian Hart, replied that the senator was simply following standard practice. “It is normal for members of Congress to use smaller planes and smaller airports in order to visit with as many constituents as possible, some in communities not served by commercial airlines," the spokesman said.

Last week, for example, Hart said that Blunt visited seven hospitals and health centers all over the state.  Since he used a plane for many of them, the stops encompassed two days. If the senator had gone by car, the visits would have taken four days, Hart said.

Hart noted that fellow U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill and Gov. Jay Nixon, both Democrats, also have used small planes to traverse the state. (McCaskill was a GOP target in 2012 because she was using a family-owned plane, which has been sold. Missouri Republicans often have jabbed Nixon because of his use of a state plane to get around.)

When asked, Kander’s campaign made clear it knew nothing about the attacks against Blunt’s plane use.  (Kander does acknowledge jabbing Blunt over his longstanding career in Washington.)

In any case,  both candidates were in Sedalia, Mo., on Thursday to visit the Missouri State Fair.  Blunt held a news conference focusing on agricultural issues, while Kander met with military veterans.

It doesn’t appear that either candidate mentioned planes or pandas.

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.