"You can feel the surge!" exclaimed Republican Senator Jim Talent, his nerdy visage beaming from behind a makeshift podium in an airless, jam-packed conference room at the back of Springfield’s old Lamplighter Inn. Late in the afternoon before election day, more than 100 volunteers had temporarily abandoned their posts at phone banks and in neighborhoods across Missouri’s most conservative city, proud home to the Pentecostal Assemblies of God and five Christian colleges, to cheer their man–and their campaign. "If we can finish and execute this plan in the next twenty-seven hours," Talent told them, "I’m convinced you’re going to re-elect yourselves a United States Senator."
The troops–an all-white mix of mostly conservative Christian senior citizens and students, including a gaggle of fraternity brothers shipped in from Brigham Young University for the final push–let out a rafter-shaking roar. Like thousands of Christian-right activists across the country, they’d looked past the scandals in Washington and Colorado and heeded the call, knocking on 45,000 Springfield doors (according to Talent’s campaign) and placing 80,000 calls to registered Republicans and independents. Sure, they’d gotten some rude receptions here and there. "I am still shocked by the things some folks said to my face," said Steve Helms, who’d been knocking on doors since December in his campaign for the Statehouse. But, he said, "it’s lined up right."
Missouri did look like this year’s ideal setting for a last-minute Karl Rove-style surge to victory. All the ingredients of a massive turnout were in place–starting with a devout, scandal-free candidate with strong Christian-right credentials and a bottomless ad budget to help make Talent’s opponent, Democratic state auditor Claire McCaskill, look like Hillary Clinton’s (even more) evil twin. The essential Rovean plot twist was also in play: a "moral values" ballot issue that would enshrine the right to federally approved stem-cell research and therapies in the state Constitution.
But rather than serving as this year’s Republican savior, Missouri ended up exemplifying why the GOP lost the mid-terms–and why the religious right’s political alliances are increasingly, startlingly, up for grabs. Like their evangelical counterparts almost everywhere else, Missouri’s religious right voted in surprisingly healthy, near-2004 numbers. But moderate and independent Missourians did not come along for the ride–partly because the stem-cell wedge proved to be anything but magic. Like the infamous Terri Schiavo intervention by Congress, opposition to stem-cell research is an extreme extension of the "pro-life" position–an extension too far, in the view of many Christian voters. As former Senator John Danforth wrote in spring 2005, "It is not evident to many of us that cells in a petri dish are equivalent to identifiable people suffering from terrible diseases." Danforth’s blast spread through Missouri faster than kudzu. So did his warning that the religious right had become a dangerously divisive force.