By HENRY C. JACKSON, THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
WASHINGTON -- Republicans have long considered Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri one of their top targets in the Senate this year. They just didn't know who her opponent would be.
GOP voters will decide among three contenders – Sarah Palin-backed Sarah Steelman, businessman John Brunner, and Rep. Todd Akin, who was endorsed by former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee – in the marquee contest in Tuesday's state primaries. No clear favorite has emerged in a primary race that will set up one of November's most anticipated Senate contests.
All three Republicans have cast themselves as the best conservative alternative to McCaskill, who is seeking re-election for the first time since winning her seat in 2006.
Other races in the four states with elections Tuesday include a Republican primary in Michigan that will determine who will take on Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow, the chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee; a showdown between two of Missouri's most prominent Democratic families, as Reps. Russ Carnahan and William Lacy Clay vie for a St. Louis-area seat in a race brought on by congressional redistricting; and a Democratic congressional primary for an open seat in Washington state. In Kansas, Republican primaries could determine whether a conservative bloc takes control of the state legislature.
The closely watched race between Steelman, Akin and Brunner promises to have the most national consequence. The GOP needs to net four seats from Democrats to gain control of the Senate in 2012.
The GOP hopefuls have lambasted McCaskill for what they say are her close ties to President Barack Obama and, in particular, her vote for Obama's signature health care law. The race has taken on a different dynamic in recent days as Palin and Huckabee – two of the GOP's most prominent faces – have lent their backing to candidates.
Palin, in particular, has been dogged in her support of Steelman, a former state treasurer. Palin has appeared in television and radio ads and campaigned with Steelman at a series of events in the state. Steelman, 54, has said she hopes to capitalize on the momentum of Ted Cruz, the Republican nominee for the Senate in Texas. He rode strong tea party support – and a timely boost from Palin – to an upset victory in that state's Senate primary last week.
Akin, 65, has also billed himself as a tea party supporter and has a strong conservative voting record in Congress. But both Steelman and Brunner have sought to use that experience against him, portraying themselves as outsiders.
The 60-year-old Brunner is a former CEO and chairman of Vi-Jon Inc., a health care products manufacturer. He has spent more than $7.5 million of his own money to campaign for the seat. He stops short of calling himself a tea party candidate, but he has the backing of FreedomWorks, a national tea party group, and the conservative Club for Growth. Both groups endorsed Cruz.
Polls have shown any of the three candidates stands a good chance of defeating McCaskill. She has taken the unusual step of airing television ads targeting all three, a tactic that reflects the uncertain nature of the GOP primary.
Republican voters in Michigan will also pick between two candidates who have cast themselves as conservatives. That contest pits former Rep. Pete Hoekstra against Clark Durant, with the winner taking on Stabenow. She is running for her third term and has enjoyed a steady lead in polls.
In Washington, seven people are running for a seat representing the newly drawn 1st Congressional District. They include Democrats Suzan DelBene, Darcy Burner, state Sen. Steve Hobbs, Laura Ruderman and Darshan Rauniyar; Republican John Koster; and independent Larry Ishmael. Voters in Washington vote by mail, so all of the state's 3.7 million voters received their ballots weeks ago. Voters have to have their ballots postmarked and in the mail by Tuesday or drop them off at specialized boxes around the state by 8 p.m. local time.
The Kansas primary will be defined by an internecine fight between the state GOP's conservative wing and its more moderate elements. Conservatives are hoping to use the primary to take decisive control of the state Senate, where moderate Republicans have slowed efforts to cut taxes, shrink government and pass more conservative social policies. A dozen moderate incumbent Republicans face challenges from the right, including the Senate president.