Going "Behind Enemy Lines" Was the Key to McCaskill's Missouri Senate Win

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Pushed over the top by a surge of support from the cities, Democrat Claire McCaskill narrowly beat incumbent Republican Jim Talent to become the next Senator from Missouri. Her victory appeared all the more dramatic because McCaskill had trailed Talent from the time the first results were announced, at 9 p.m., until shortly after midnight. But as the final votes poured in from the state's two major cities, St. Louis and Kansas City, McCaskill pulled ahead, beating Talent by just 42,000 of the 2 million votes cast.

McCaskill won partly thanks to her own strategy for containing her losses in more conservative rural areas, and partly thanks to widespread voter discontent with the war in Iraq and the policies of President Bush. McCaskill campaigned hard outside of the Democrats urban strongholds: She launched her campaign at her family's old feed mill in the town of Houston, population 1,992, and she campaigned intensively in such conservative strongholds as Springfield and St. Charles County. And the gamble appears to have paid off, holding down Talent's margin of victory to a slim 53% in conservative Greene County, where he needed to do much better to offset McCaskill's advantage in St. Louis, where Democrats typically win 80% of the vote.

"When the political pros saw the numbers coming in from the rural counties, they pretty much knew McCaskill was going to win," said Jake Zimmerman, a longtime Democratic Party activist who won a seat in the Missouri Senate Tuesday.

And exit polls suggest that the Bush Administration and its handling of the Iraq war also weighed heavily on voters' minds. "What brought Talent down wasn't Talent," said pollster and Saint Louis University political science professor Ken Warren. "There's no question about it, this was a referendum on the Bush Administration."

It was the first victory in years for a battered Democratic Party in Missouri. Ever since Talent narrowly beat Jean Carnahan to join the Senate in 2002, the party has lost control of the governor's office and the state legislature in a series of close elections.

Even after midnight, when the Secretary of State's office reported that McCaskill had started to pull ahead, the mood at McCaskill's campaign party remained cautious and tense. "You've got to remember that most of us have been in that exact same room, with those exact same people, and we've suffered some crushing defeats," Zimmerman said. "Even people who rationally knew Claire had won weren't going to let themselves believe until they saw her up on that stage, giving her acceptance speech." Which she did, flanked by her family, a few minutes after 1 a.m.