Veteran GOP incumbent Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri kept his job Tuesday, riding the Republican wave of winners across the country.
Blunt, 66, easily overcame his Democratic challenger, Jason Kander. Blunt was part of the pack of Republicans racking up wins, including Eric Greitens in the Missouri governor's race and Donald J. Trump in the presidential race.
Blunt met with his supporters at a Springfield hotel where the crowd was chanting "USA! USA!"
"Never in the history of the state, have we reelected majorities in the Missouri General Assembly, the House and the Senate, reelected a senator and elected five statewide Republican officials," Blunt said. "What a great moment for our state."
Just after midnight, Kander appeared briefly at the Uptown Theatre, where he told the few remaining fans at his watch party that they must never give up on politics.
"This is a generation that has incredible capacity," Kander said, "and this generation isn't going anywhere."
Going into Tuesday, polls showed Blunt and Kander dead-even in a campaign driven by $46 million in outside money. That set a record higher than the hotly contested 2012 race between Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill and Republican Rep. Todd Akin (which saw $14 million in funding from groups that did not coordinate with the campaigns). Blunt and Kander also raised significant war chests, with Blunt pulling in nearly $15 million and Kander following with $11 million.
Blunt had an early lead in what looked like an easy reelection bid. But by the end of summer, Kander had gained momentum thanks in part to help from the national party.
By November, polls showed a statistical tie and both candidates brought in popular surrogates: Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz for Blunt, and Democrats Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Vice President Joe Biden for Kander.
One of the campaign's turning points came in August, after the National Rifle Association began running ads against Kander, reminding voters that it had given him an “F,” as opposed to Blunt's “A.” Kander, 35, answered with one of the most talked-about political ads of the year, in which he quickly snaps together an AR-15 rifle while blindfolded.
A former Army captain who volunteered to serve in Afghanistan after 9/11, Kander says in the ad that he supported the Second Amendment during his time in the Missouri House. He then puts the rifle together in 22 seconds, takes off the blindfold and throws down a challenge.
“I also believe in background checks, so terrorists can’t get their hands on one of these,” he says. “I approved this message, because I’d like to see Sen. Blunt do this.”
Blunt, 66, returned the volley with an ad mocking the blindfolded candidate, but it couldn’t compete with Kander’s ad, which racked up 1.4 million views on YouTube.
In ads and on the stump, Blunt tried to connect Kander with Hillary Clinton, who is not popular in Missouri. Blunt made particular note of the open seat on the U.S. Supreme Court and the importance of a Republican majority in the Senate.
Blunt, however, took a beating in ads that showed his million-dollar home in Washington, D.C., poked holes in his 20-year congressional voting record and exposed his wife, daughter and two sons as Washington lobbyists.
Much like Republican candidates across the country, Blunt was in a tough position because of the GOP presidential nominee. Blunt endorsed Trump and continued his support after Trump’s many gaffes, while refusing to comment about it on the stump, turning away reporters’ questions and earning more dings from Democrats.
Kander, meanwhile, emphasized his military service, his millennial status, and his goal to improve middle class finances. He won the support of veterans, who didn’t like the three college deferments Blunt took while in college during the Vietnam War, and young voters, who liked Kander’s pledge to help on skyrocketing college debt.
Peggy Lowe is investigations editor at KCUR and Harvest Public Media. You can find her on Twitter at @peggyllowe.