- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 29, 2010

In the supposed year of the outsider, Missouri didn’t get the memo.

The race for the state’s open U.S. Senate seat, expected to be one of the most competitive in the nation, pits seven-term Rep. Roy Blunt, former No. 2 in the House GOP leadership, against Missouri Secretary of State Robin Carnahan, a Democrat who was born into one of the state’s most prominent political dynasties.

“No matter who you vote for in November, he or she will be connected,” said Mason-Dixon pollster Brad Coker.

Their resumes and pedigrees bring Mr. Blunt and Mrs. Carnahan nearly 100 percent name recognition in the state, according to a recent poll. But they also could be handicaps among independent voters, whose numbers are difficult measure in Missouri and who have shown a taste for non-establishment candidates across the country.

Though Mr. Blunt has held the more prominent elected offices, both candidates have deep family ties in state politics.

Mr. Blunt, 60, is the son of a southwestern Missouri dairy farmer and state legislator. In a political career dating back to the mid-1970s, he has been a county clerk, Missouri secretary of state, president of his alma mater Southwest Baptist University, and a House member since 1996, at one point serving as House minority whip.

His son Matt was Missouri’s governor from 2005 to 2009, after serving in the state General Assembly and then elected secretary of state in 2000.

Mrs. Carnahan, a 49-year-old cancer survivor raised on a south-central Missouri farm, has political roots that date from the 1950s, when her grandfather, A.S.J. Carnahan, was a House member. Her father, Mel Carnahan, was Missouri governor from 1993 until he died in a 2000 plane crash. His wife and the candidate’s mother, Jean Carnahan, was appointed to the seat for a year, then was replaced in a special election.

If she wins the Senate seat, Robin Carnahan could be reunited on Capitol Hill with her elder brother, Russ, who represents the state’s 3rd Congressional District in the House.

The race to succeed retiring Sen. Christopher S. Bond, a Republican, is crucial to GOP hopes of capturing the 10 seats needed to win back control of the Senate. Most consider that aspiration a long shot, but forecasters say Republicans’ chances are rising.

Although Mrs. Carnahan has long been seen as the Democrats’ best hope to capture Mr. Bond’s seat, polls suggest Mr. Blunt has done well early in the race. He leads by 51 percent to 40 percent, according to a Rasmussen Reports survey released last week, although a second poll conducted for the Missouri State University Center for Social Sciences and Public Policy Research had the two deadlocked at 48 percent each.

The Blunt and Carnahan campaigns have followed the narrative that has played out through the 2010 election cycle: She is on the defensive for her links to the agenda of President Obama and the Democrat-controlled Congress, while Mr. Blunt is under attack as a career Washington insider and a supporter of the unpopular Wall Street bailout plan.

Both candidates are experienced campaigners, and both can boast a campaign chest of roughly $4 million. With name recognition and campaign resources not at issue, the winner could be decided on the merits of controlling the narrative of the debate.

“This race will be more negative than the typical statewide race,” said Terry Jones, a political science professor at the University of Missouri at St. Louis. “But turning this into a Hatfield versus McCoys would not be accurate.”

The Blunt campaign recently posted - then swiftly took down - an Internet video that showed the smoking rubble of the World Trade Center towers as Mrs. Carnahan said New Yorkers should decide whether an Islamic center and mosque should be built near the site of the terrorist attack. The campaign apologized.

Labor union supporters for Mrs. Carnahan sponsored a radio ad saying Mr. Blunt has repeatedly supported pay raises for himself and other members of Congress. Lawyers forced a Springfield radio station to postpone the spot until it passes a legal review. Environmental groups have poured money into the race on Mrs. Carnahan’s behalf.

Mr. Blunt has played up his opposition to Mr. Obama’s health care overhaul and the $814 billion economic stimulus program - at a time when Mr. Obama’s approval rating in Missouri is just 34 percent, roughly 9 percentage points below the national average.

Mr. Obama narrowly lost the state to his Republican competitor, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, in the 2008 presidential election, but has had a tough time maintaining support. In Missouri’s first-in-the-nation voter referendum earlier this month, more than 71 percent of voters opposed the insurance-buying mandate in Mr. Obama’s health care plan.

“We are going to continue talking about the issues of the campaign - that Robin Carnahan is a rubber stamp for the failed economic policies of [Senate Majority Leader] Harry Reid, [House Speaker] Nancy Pelosi and Barack Obama,” said Blunt campaign manager Rich Chrismer.

The Carnahan campaign did not respond to offers to comment for this article.

She has been willing to break with Mr. Obama and her party. She criticizes the Troubled Asset Relief Program that bailed out Wall Street financial institutions despite Mr. Obama’s vote in favor in 2008 in the Senate, and she recently broke with the president to support an extension of George W. Bush-era tax cuts, even for the highest income brackets.

Even though Democrats control the White House and both houses of Congress, a recent Carnahan attack derided the Republican candidate as the “very worst of Washington.”

If the 2010 primaries are an indication, Mr. Blunt should win the independent vote, though getting an accurate number is difficult because residents do not register by political party and exit-poll estimates have varied wildly in recent years.

University of Missouri professor Mark Overby said independents represent 10 percent to 20 percent of voters in the state, while Mr. Coker estimates that it could run as high as 30 percent.

Mr. Blunt should win in the conservative southwest region where he lives, and Mrs. Carnahan is likely to get more votes in the more liberal-leaning cities of St. Louis and Kansas City. State political analysts say the race could be decided in the voter-rich suburbs of St. Louis and that voter turnout in that region will be key.

Mr. Overby acknowledged the criticism that Mrs. Carnahan has been slow to hit the road and meet voters, but added that it might be good strategy.

“Mrs. Carnahan hasn’t fully unlumbered her campaign, but should start around Labor Day,” Mr. Overby said. “Maybe’s she smarter than we think.”

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