Why you should care

Because Missouri is critical to determining which party controls the Senate.

OZY partners with McClatchy to bring you premium political analysis.OZY and McClatchy are teaming up to deliver in-depth coverage of this year's most pivotal political campaigns in the run-up to the U.S. midterm elections.

As sure as the changing of the leaves, janky jack-o-lanterns and pumpkin spice lattes, these final weeks of October mark a shift in the political calendar — as across the tightest political races, a final cascade of opposition research and mudslinging rain down. We have officially entered the kitchen-sink stage of the election season.

In Georgia’s governor race, a voter suppression lawsuit against Republican Brian Kemp vies for headlines against a video where critics say Democrat Stacey Abrams is telling undocumented immigrants to vote. In North Dakota, undercover conservative activists from Project Veritas surreptitiously recorded a campaign staffer for Sen. Heidi Heitkamp saying she would be “super liberal” if elected. But it’s in Missouri, in the contest between Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill and Republican Attorney General Josh Hawley, where you can expect the biggest fireworks between now and Election Day.

Why? Because it is the closest Senate race in the nation, according to OZY’s exclusive election forecasting model in partnership with Republican data firm 0ptimus. In the Show Me State, which voted for Trump by almost 20 percentage points in 2016, Hawley has pushed McCaskill to the brink. Yet the dozen-year incumbent holds a slight edge in the final days — with a 55.9 percent chance of winning re-election, according to our model. Right now, we predict that Republicans have the inside track to keep the Senate, with an 86.5 percent chance of capturing 50 or more seats in November. Democrats would need to win 7 of the 9 races that our model lists as “lean Democrat,” “toss-up” or “lean Republican” in order to spring the upset and claim the Senate — and Missouri is critical to such a quest.

Both parties know this, which is why Missouri is seeing attacks from all sides and the most outside spending of any race in the country at $60 million. Republicans have hounded McCaskill over the source of her husband’s wealth, after Republican opposition research firm America Rising revealed that he made at least $11 million by flipping property development tax credits, painting it as an example of “crony capitalism.” Earlier this month, a video surfaced of her admitting that if liberal voters in St. Louis “do our job,” then “I can give up a few votes in the Bootheel,” a political reality that nonetheless was used to paint McCaskill as not caring about rural voters.

Project Veritas — known for undercover stings targeting Democrats, the media and liberal groups — embedded an undercover staffer on the McCaskill campaign and released videos of staffers talking about how Planned Parenthood and anti-gun groups funnel money to the McCaskill campaign in ways that avoid public scrutiny from conservative voters. McCaskill responded by demanding Hawley investigate the group for fraud for infiltrating her campaign.

Meanwhile, Hawley has faced his own last-minute barrage. The liberal Washington-based American Democracy Legal Fund — which has been going after Hawley for more than a year for mixing official and political business — recently filed a complaint with the state saying Hawley isn’t fulfilling his official job duties because he has been campaigning so much during the workweek.

How much do these kinds of things really matter to voters?

In addition, the gun control group Giffords and the nonprofit Campaign Legal Center filed a complaint to the Federal Election Commission on Monday, accusing the Hawley campaign of illegally coordinating with the National Rifle Association’s PAC on a series of television ads, including having the same person place ads for both the Senate campaign and the PAC at the same TV station on the same day. Campaigns and PACs aren’t legally allowed to coordinate, and when campaigns and outside groups use the same consulting firms, they are supposed to keep their activities separate with a so-called firewall.

“It’s impossible that an individual employee can create a firewall in his brain,” Brendan Fischer, director of the Campaign Legal Center, told McClatchy. “These facts suggest an elaborate scheme designed to evade detection of violations,” the plaintiffs wrote in the complaint. Hawley spokeswoman Kelli Ford called them ”desperate and frivolous complaints” backed by a “radical anti-gun group.”

How much do these kinds of things really matter to voters? Jonathan Hertlein, a Republican-leaning tennis coach in St. Louis, says issues like the tax cut, military spending and decreasing the deficit have him backing Hawley. Meanwhile, Gail White, a Democrat also from St. Louis, says health insurance protections for pre-existing conditions is her primary issue as she plans to vote for McCaskill. “The Affordable Care Act is not perfect, but why tear the whole thing up?”

Yet both Hertlein and White agree that a willingness to work across the aisle is a key trait they’re looking for, despite the heated partisan throes of the campaign homestretch. “Everyone not being able to come together, it’s terrible,” White says. “They are stuck in the mud on one side and the other, and they are losing sight of the big picture.”

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