- The Washington Times - Monday, March 22, 2010

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. | Rep. Roy Blunt has been in Congress for 13 years, most of them in the Republican leadership. Democratic Secretary of State Robin Carnahan comes from a family with three generations of Washington politicians.

Yet both Mr. Blunt and Mrs. Carnahan are campaigning against the powers that be as they attempt to win Missouri’s U.S. Senate seat left open by the retirement of longtime Republican Sen. Christopher S. Bond.

It’s a sign of just how unpopular Washington is these days. Senate aspirants across the country are parroting the “outsider” theme that President Obama himself campaigned on just two years ago. That’s particularly true in the 11 states with open Senate seats.

Just 22 percent of Americans - less than at any previous point in Mr. Obama’s presidency - approve of Congress, according to an AP-GfK poll this month. Half say they want to fire their own congressmen. And the frustration is directed at both Republicans and Democrats.

“This is a year when people are very unhappy about the direction of the country. They’re very unhappy in particular about the performance of government and of Congress,” said Dave Robertson, a political scientist at the University of Missouri at St. Louis. “All candidates are going to try to emphasize that they are not part of the problem, but can contribute to the solutions.”

Few candidates face a more interesting challenge in this climate than Missouri’s Senate contenders.

The Carnahans and Blunts are the state’s versions of the Kennedy political dynasty. During the past half-century, members of the two families have served at almost every level of government - from the local school board to the state legislature to the governor’s mansion and the U.S. House and Senate.

In the swing state of Missouri, which narrowly went for Republican John McCain over Mr. Obama in 2008, Mr. Blunt has been running against Mr. Obama and the Democratic leadership of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

Mrs. Carnahan, meanwhile, has been running against a Washington establishment, personified by Mr. Blunt, that she decries as mired in partisan gridlock and beholden to special-interest lobbyists and Wall Street executives.

Mrs. Carnahan didn’t even share the stage when Mr. Obama visited Missouri recently - she had traveled to the nation’s capital, saying she needed to push for tougher oversight of Wall Street bankers.

Is she the challenger? “Absolutely,” Mrs. Carnahan said in a recent interview with the Associated Press.

Is he the challenger? “I am absolutely in the challenger mode,” Mr. Blunt said in an AP interview.

Those assertions ring hollow to some prospective voters.

“We look at the Carnahans and Blunts just as big families that have been in politics - that’s part of the problem,” said Mike Lee, 48, a plumbing salesman who attended a recent “tea party” rally in St. Louis. “We just want a change.”

In Illinois, Republican Rep. Mark Steven Kirk and Democratic Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias both have presented themselves as outsiders in a race for the Senate seat Mr. Obama once held. Mr. Kirk, a nine-year veteran of Congress, casts himself as a new face removed from Illinois’ Democratic corruption scandals. Mr. Giannoulias has played up the fact that he’s never served in Washington and tried to tag Mr. Kirk as tainted by his years of service there - even though Mr. Giannoulias himself has ties to the White House as a former basketball buddy of the president.

A similar dynamic is forming in Indiana, where former Sen. Dan Coats is the front-runner for the GOP nomination and Rep. Brad Ellsworth is favored for the Democratic nod. Neither can boast purity from the stigma of Washington - Mr. Coats spent more than a decade in Congress, then served as an ambassador to Germany under President George W. Bush and worked as a lobbyist, while Mr. Ellsworth is in his second term in the House.

But that hasn’t stopped either from casting himself as the outsider. Announcing his candidacy, Mr. Ellsworth played up not his three years in the House, but his time as a sheriff in southern Indiana. Mr. Coats has vowed to stop Democrats’ push for major policy changes.

Likewise, Mr. Blunt doesn’t dwell on his past tenure as the House Republican whip - nor his interim role as majority leader, nor his wife’s job as a Washington lobbyist - when traveling the state in an RV emblazoned with the slogan “Jobs for Missouri’s future.” Instead, Mr. Blunt focuses on the Democrats who now control Washington. In stump speeches, he mentions Mr. Obama, Mrs. Pelosi and Mr. Reid as much or more often than Mrs. Carnahan, whom he casts as their rubber stamp.

“The agenda they established from Day One in their majority was an extremist agenda, and President Obama, unfortunately, seems pretty comfortable with that extremist agenda,” said Mr. Blunt, mentioning the Democratic health care and climate-change proposals.

Mrs. Carnahan worked from 1993 to 1996 for the Export-Import Bank of the United States. Her grandfather was a congressman, and her mother was appointed a U.S. senator after her father, then-Gov. Mel Carnahan, died in a plane crash while campaigning for Senate in 2000. Her brother, Russ, currently is a Democratic U.S. House member.

Yet Mrs. Carnahan declared: “Washington feels broken.” And she added: “What Congressman Blunt represents is the worst of Washington.”

“If you’re too big to fail, Washington works for you. If you have a high-powered lobbyist, Washington can work for you. But for the rest of us, we’re just having to put up with this recession and try to get through it,” she said.

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