KANSAS CITY, MO. — It took only a single term for Roy Blunt to become more than just a congressman from small-town Missouri.
Just that quickly, the former history teacher — born in Niangua, population 494 — was on his way to becoming the consummate Washington insider.
A decade later, he’s the Republican candidate for Missouri’s open U.S. Senate seat, running against Democrat Robin Carnahan. One recent poll gave Blunt an 11-point lead; another showed the race tied.
But even as surveys show voters this year might be hostile to incumbents, Blunt appears to have suffered little political fall- out as a practitioner of a style of politics the public professes to detest.
“What’s unusual is here’s a guy who understands how the levers of special-interest power work, and he’s being very successful in a period when the public wants to throw the bums out,” said Bill Allison of the Sunlight Foundation, a nonpartisan group that pushes government openness.
Blunt’s reputation as a Washington insider already is a campaign issue. Carnahan began airing new attack ads this week calling her opponent “the very worst of Washington.”
“He’s gotten too cozy with the lobbyists,” Carnahan said recently in Kansas City. “He’s the top recipient of lobbyists’ campaign contributions in all of Washington, and I think he’s forgotten who he works for.”
But when asked to point to specific examples of wrongdoing, Carnahan’s campaign drew a blank.
“That’s a good question,” Carnahan aide Mindy Mazur said.
Blunt declined to address Carnahan’s charges, saying only: “Robin Carnahan doesn’t want to talk about the issues Missourians care about, like jobs and the economy, because she knows her positions are out of touch with Missouri families.”
Blunt was elected in 1996 and quickly became steeped in the culture of Capitol Hill. He developed strong ties to the lobbying industry. Former aides work for influential firms in a revolving door common in the nation’s capital.
He has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars from major corporations and trade groups, used their corporate jets and pushed legislation that critics contend benefited his donors and family members.
Indeed, Blunt is married to a prominent Capitol Hill lobbyist. One of his sons is a Missouri lobbyist. His clients have included some of his father’s top political donors, including Philip Morris and AT&T.
Another son, former governor Matt Blunt, is a senior adviser to two prominent D.C. lobbying firms. One is headed by former attorney general John Ashcroft, himself a former governor and senator. A vice chairman at the other firm is Gregg Hartley, Roy Blunt’s former chief of staff.
Blunt has accepted contributions from disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, whose political corruption case helped knock the GOP out of power in 2006.
Some of Blunt’s aides also enjoyed perks courtesy of Abramoff, including free concert tickets. Some even became ensnared in the ensuing Justice Department investigation. The probe sent the lobbyist to prison on corruption charges and tarred the reputations of political players on Capitol Hill.
But Blunt spokeswoman Burson Snyder, who responded to most of the issues raised in this story by critics, points out: “Roy Blunt never met Jack Abramoff.”
Still, Carnahan’s campaign is betting that Blunt’s insider credentials will catch up with him and eventually count more with voters than her affiliation with President Barack Obama.
George Connor, a Missouri State University political scientist, isn’t so sure.
“Even though Roy Blunt might be the prototypical Washington insider, that’s still preferred over (House Speaker Nancy) Pelosi, (Senate Majority Leader Harry) Reid and Carnahan,” Connor said. “That seems to be the way this campaign is shaping up.”
Carnahan has held elective office since 2004 and also has served in the federal government. She comes from one of Missouri’s most prominent political families, including a governor and a U.S. senator. The Kansas City Star will examine her record in a future story.
Colleagues from both parties said Blunt has remained attentive to the needs and conservative pulse of southwest Missouri’s 7th Congressional District. They describe him as friendly, even-tempered and open to compromise.
“He has the ability to move the ball down the field, and part of that is building relationships,” said Kenny Hulshof, a Republican and former U.S. House member.
He called Blunt the savviest politician he has met.
Just two years after he was elected, Blunt’s star was on the rise. House Majority Whip Tom DeLay plucked him from obscurity to become chief deputy whip, whose task is to count Republican votes.
But by 2006, his close association with DeLay and a cloud of GOP scandals would hinder Blunt’s rise in the House leadership when he lost a contest to become majority leader.
“Guilt by association,” said Rep. John Shimkus, an Illinois Republican elected with Blunt in 1996.
Early on, however, Shimkus said that unlike other freshmen, Blunt was ready to play at the big-league level.
“I was trying to find the bathrooms,” Shimkus said. “He hit the ground running.”
With Republicans eager to forge a deeper alliance with Washington’s lobbying industry, Blunt became a pivotal player in the K Street Project, an effort to cement the connection between Capitol Hill, special interests and campaign money.
Under Blunt and Republican leaders, lobbyists became part of the legislative equation. Blunt’s office became the nerve center of an outreach campaign to K Street that brought corporate interests to the table.
“We formalized the process of reaching out to them,” Hartley told Bloomberg News in 2006. “You could talk to Tom or Tom’s people, or Roy or Roy’s people. It was all the same.”
During the 2003 vote on the Medicare prescription drug program, when Blunt had moved up to majority whip, he set up a “war room” for lobbyists in his office to help pass the bill.
“Not all members of Congress carry water for special interests quite as obviously as Blunt has,” said Allison of the Sunlight Foundation. “He kind of made an art form of it.”
The conservative magazine The Weekly Standard said at the time that Blunt “may be the most influential Republican no one’s ever heard of.”
Blunt followed DeLay up the ladder. When the Texas congressman became majority leader in 2002, Blunt became majority whip. When DeLay stepped down in 2005 after his indictment in Texas for campaign law violations, Blunt replaced him again temporarily, while still holding onto his whip post.
DeLay still faces charges in Texas. The Justice Department, meanwhile, has dropped its own corruption investigation of DeLay’s connection to Abramoff.
Though allies politically, DeLay and Blunt had contrasting styles. DeLay was known as “the hammer” for his combative brand of politics. Blunt employed the soft sell.
Their political action committees shared offices on Capitol Hill. A former DeLay congressional aide directed both of their PACs. He was later indicted along with DeLay in the Texas case.
Blunt and DeLay also shared an aggressive approach to fundraising.
Case in point: a 2000 “money carousel” the two orchestrated that, according to The Associated Press, funneled political donations secretly collected for presidential convention parties “to some of their own pet causes.”
DeLay’s group transferred $150,000 to one of Blunt’s PACs — Rely on Your Beliefs — which then donated $100,000 to the Missouri Republican Party.
The state GOP began spending big money to boost the ultimately successful campaign of Blunt’s son Matt, then running for secretary of state.
The Missouri Ethics Commission later fined Blunt’s PAC $3,000 for improperly concealing its fundraising.
Snyder said that the Missouri GOP, and not Blunt’s PAC, decided how the contribution would be spent. She said Blunt’s PAC had made regular donations to the state party over the years, and the 2000 donation was not unusual.
Blunt’s ties to Abramoff also have generated criticism. Six months after Blunt’s promotion to chief deputy whip, Abramoff contributed $5,000 to his newly formed leadership PAC. In all, Abramoff donated $8,500 to Blunt between 1999 and 2003.
He also included Blunt on a short list of power players designated as “FOO” — friends of the owner — who were to dine for free at his restaurant near Capitol Hill.
Snyder said that Blunt never accepted free meals and never knew he was even on the list.
He also never took money from the Indian tribes seeking gambling casino licenses who were Abramoff’s clients and whom the lobbyist was accused of defrauding. Snyder said Blunt opposed Indian gaming.
But in 2003, Blunt signed two letters to Interior Secretary Gale Norton urging her to support the casino concerns of a Louisiana tribe that was an Abramoff client.
A week after the second letter, also signed by DeLay and then-House speaker Dennis Hastert, Blunt received a $2,000 donation from Abramoff’s lobbying firm.
Asked about the letters in 2006, spokeswoman Snyder said Blunt signed them because a Louisiana colleague asked him to.
“The notion that there is some sort of quid pro quo here is absurd,” she said.
After Abramoff’s downfall, Blunt’s PAC contributed an amount equal to what it received from the lobbyist — $8,500 — to charity, Snyder said.
Connor of Missouri State University said: “One could’ve accused Congressman Blunt of guilt by association. He became very close to what we might call the wrong people.”
Blunt also has faced criticism that his legislation rewarded political donors and helped family and close friends.
One episode occurred not long after he was chosen as majority whip in 2002. Blunt tried to slip an amendment for tobacco giant Philip Morris, a political contributor, into a bill establishing the Homeland Security Department.
The amendment, according to The Washington Post, was crafted to protect the company from competition from contraband cigarettes and Internet sales of tobacco products.
Snyder said the bill was needed because the government had become concerned that cigarette smuggling was helping finance terrorism.
The Philip Morris lobbyist at the time was Abigail Perlman, a close friend whom Blunt married the following year after divorcing his first wife. Andrew Blunt, the congressman’s son and a lobbyist in Missouri, also worked for the company.
Prior to the tobacco amendment, executives for Philip Morris and two of its subsidiaries, Kraft Foods and Miller Brewing Co., donated more than $30,000 to Blunt’s PAC, according to campaign finance disclosure records.
The Miller PAC also had donated $10,000 to another Blunt committee set up to collect unregulated donations known as “soft money.” The year before, Philip Morris donated $100,000 to the same PAC.
DeLay and Hastert killed the amendment once they learned of it. Blunt said at the time that he got the idea from a similar Senate bill.
Shimkus of Illinois was critical of Blunt then.
“I’m a Christian,” Shimkus said. “I believe in sin and salvation and grace. We’re not perfect. There are hiccups along the way. You have to weigh the good with the bad. You’ve got to consider the whole portfolio. That’s what voters do.”