Will Anti-Incumbent Fervor Take Down a Popular Democrat in Missouri?


It is often--and correctly--said that voters dislike Congress but like their own representatives. In this election cycle, Ike Skelton, a 17-term incumbent Democrat who represents a Missouri district that gave more than 60 percent of its votes to George W. Bush and John McCain, represents everything voters are fed up with this election cycle. He's an establishment figure, 78 years of age, running for his 18th term in Congress. And he has a (D) next to his name. The mood in this cycle works against both establishment incumbents and Democrats.
Race of the Day But Skelton, who survived the last Republican wave election in 1994, when many of his Democratic colleagues were shockingly defeated, is respected and well liked personally in his district--which is why he has become an institution unto himself. He has rarely had to fight to get re-elected; his broad support in his district has allowed him to vanquish all challengers by racking up more than 60 percent of the vote in nearly every election.

Skelton's district is more socially conservative (Skelton did not support the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell") and less squeamish about the use of military power (it harbors several military bases) than most represented by Democrats. Skelton aligns with his constituents in this sense, especially as chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. This district would be represented by a Republican if not for the personal appeal that Skelton has cultivated across party lines over his three-decade career in Congress.

This year, Skelton will face a Republican, socially conservative former member of the State House of Representatives: Vicky Hartzler. Unlike some incumbents who took their re-election for granted, Skelton, even before the GOP picked its candidate in Hartzler, knew he would have a fight on his hands. He became active in social media. He met with more voters in his district than he normally does. He showed up at community events, with reports describing how he bought more pies than ever at various community and neighborhood fundraisers in his district.

In Washington, Skelton voted against Obama's health care legislation, which was wise given that Missourians went to the polls in August and overwhelmingly passed an initiative seeking to exempt them from the individual mandate.

Right out of the gate, before Hartzler could define herself, Skelton unleashed a television commercial accusing her of not having supported the troops while she was in the statehouse (Hartzler's campaign has said Skelton's advertisement was a "distortion"). Skelton's strategy seems to be clear: make the race about who can best support the troops in order to deflect attention from the dismal ratings of national Democrats.
This tactic put Hartzler on the defensive in this military-centric district, but she is a well-funded and disciplined candidate. The national mood against Democrats, however, is probably her greatest asset. The more she can align Skelton with the Democratic majority in Congress, the better her chances will be of knocking him off. If the GOP is to take back the House, they will need Hartzler to pull off an upset of a popular incumbent who is revered by constituents of both parties.

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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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