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'Swift boat' hiring underscores national conservative focus on Missouri Senate race

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 8, 2011 - As Republican consultant Chris LaCivita sees it, his hiring by Missouri U.S. Senate candidate Todd Akin has little to do with LaCivita's notoriety as a key cog in the 2004 "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth" campaign against Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry.

The point, says LaCivita, is that he has been a major player in Republican congressional or gubernatorial campaigns in Missouri for at least a decade. They include Jim Talent's first 2002 bid for the U.S. Senate, Matt Blunt's 2004 contest for governor, Ed Martin's 2010 quest for Congress -- and Roy Blunt's 2010 bid for the U.S. Senate.

"I know the state pretty well," LaCivita said in an interview. It should be noted that all but one of the above won their contests, and Martin came close.

In Blunt's case, LaCivita said he talked to the candidate's top campaign aides regularly last year in Civita's role running the political operation for the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

On a broader level, LaCivita's involvement also underscores the importance of Missouri's U.S. Senate contest for several conservative groups, besides the usual help from national GOP groups like the NRSC.

For example: The national Crossroads GPS, an independent group with ties to strategist Karl Rove, announced Friday it has launched yet another TV ad in Missouri targeting U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.

That's at least the third anti-McCaskill ad launched by the group, or its sister organization American Crossroads, in little more than a month.

"This is going to be among the top two Senate races in the country," said LaCivita.

The other, he said, is the already hot contest in Virginia between former U.S. Sen. George Allen, a Republican who lost the seat in 2006, and former Gov. Tim Kaine, a Democrat who most recently headed the Democratic National Committee.

LaCivita previously had worked for Allen but isn't helping him in 2012 because "I don't have the time." LaCivita explained that he already has a cadre of clients for 2012, including Akin.

LaCivita represents several staff changes in Akin's congressional and campaign operations. Akin's longtime chief of staff Patrick Werner recently left to take over, as of this week, as the new state director for Americans for Prosperity, a conservative anti-tax, small-government group with ties to the Koch brothers.

Americans for Prosperity ran ads last year that attacked the economic views of the Democratic U.S. Senate nominee, Robin Carnahan, who ended up losing badly to Blunt. The state group also was very active in tea party events, particularly in the St. Louis area.

Werner said in an interview that he currently is focusing on building up grassroots support and donors for the state chapter, so that it can promote its views next year. "The main focus will be the (government) spending, and the need for smaller government," Werner said. He also plans to reach out to tea party groups around the state.

Werner emphasized that the group will be focusing on issues, and won't be promoting any candidates. "My objective is to educate and inform," he said. "If it helps Todd, great. But that's not my main objective."

Missouri Swinging Permanently to the Right?

George Connor, head of the political science department at Missouri State University in Springfield, agrees that Missouri's Senate contest will be a top tier battle next year. He added that the attention is largely because Republicans and conservatives believe they have a strong shot at defeating McCaskill, despite her reputation as "an astute political campaigner."

Connor added that LaCivita's "entrance into the campaign suggests the potential for two things."

Akin's use of LaCivita, the professor said, indicates that the congressman "is trying to appeal to a stauncher conservative" because that bloc appears to be growing, within the state Republican Party and within Missouri's general electorate.

"I think there is a movement toward the right in Missouri,'' Connor said.

Second, LaCivita could help Akin as he presses for more support from the tea party crowd and seeks to counter any similar effort by GOP rival Sarah Steelman, the former state treasurer.

"Bringing in the 'Swift Boat guy' means 'we're trying to appeal to the more radicalized right wing of the Republican Party,' " Connor said.

As a result, the professor speculated that Akin may focus less on his 12 years in the U.S. House and more on his strong conservative views, socially and fiscally.

In that sense, the recent flap over Akin's strong religious views actually could help him with fellow social conservatives.

LaCivita said there's no question that Akin's conservatism will be a centerpiece of his campaign. "He's not part of the 'boy's club' " in Washington, the consultant said. At the same time, he added, "the congressman has a great record that conservatives can be proud of."

"It's one thing to say you're conservative," LaCivita added, and another to regularly show it. "That level of consistency ... will be a clear contrast, particularly in the general election," the consultant added.

Such comments indicate a continuation of the Republican effort, already underway, to compare and contrast McCaskill's comments and votes on various issues since she won her first Senate race in 2006.

But LaCivita emphasized that, for Akin, "the immediate goal is winning the primary." That appears to be a hint that more attention may be focused on Steelman until the August 2012 primary.

Said Missouri Democratic Party spokeswoman Caitlin Legacki: "If there was any question that the GOP Senate primary was going to be extremely expensive and nasty, Akin hiring the engineer of one of America's worst smear campaigns should put to rest all doubt."

Akin, by the way, is not LaCivita's only campaign client in Missouri. The consultant also is assisting Martin in his bid for Congress in the 2nd District. The two have been involved in various national conservative efforts in recent years.

Martin's GOP rival is Ann Wagner, who LaCivita knows well from her tenure as vice-chair of the Republican National Committee. The consultant emphasized that there will be no link between the 2nd District and U.S. Senate contests.

His major point about 2012? "I will be very busy in Missouri."

Jo Mannies is a freelance journalist and former political reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.