KANSAS CITY — The likely pairing of Democrat Robin Carnahan and Republican Roy Blunt in a race for a seat in the U.S. Senate is fully under way, with general agreement that it will be among the most-watched races in the nation next year.
After a year of primping and posing by both candidates, the race is close. Very close.
"It’s a 50-50 race in a 50-50 state," Blunt said.
The 2010 version of Missouri’s biennial pas de deux involves two of the state’s storied political families: Carnahan, who hopes to follow her mother, Jean, to Congress’ upper chamber, and Blunt, a congressman, a veteran of state politics and the father of a former governor, Matt Blunt.
A Carnahan win could help the Democrats maintain a filibuster-proof margin in the Senate. A Blunt victory could signal a GOP resurgence in the wake of Barack Obama’s resounding 2008 election as president.
“I think there’s going to be a very clear choice,” Carnahan said.
Square-knot-tight Senate races in Missouri are nothing new. Nine years ago, Republican John Ashcroft and Democrat Mel Carnahan — Robin Carnahan’s father — lit up the airwaves in a heated contest that The Washington Post recently named the country’s second-best Senate race in the last 10 years.
Mel Carnahan died in a plane crash on Oct. 16, 2000, and three weeks later was elected posthumously by a 3 percent margin. Jean Carnahan, who took her husband’s place in the Senate, lost by 1 percentage point in 2002 to Republican Jim Talent, who then lost by 3 percentage points in 2006 to Democrat Claire McCaskill.
“Missouri may be the purest swing state in the nation,” the nonpartisan Cook Political Report recently wrote. “It is inevitable that next year’s Senate contest will be very competitive.”
A mid-December Rasmussen poll suggests just how competitive: Robin Carnahan was the choice of 46 percent of likely Missouri voters and Blunt was the pick of 44 percent — a statistical dead heat.
Blunt and Carnahan both face political trends they must overcome. For Carnahan, Missouri’s two-term secretary of state, it is history. Midterm elections traditionally swing in favor of the party that doesn’t control the White House.
At the root of that trend are a president’s poll numbers. Like most first-year presidents, Obama has seen his job approval drop — from 68 percent in January to 48 percent in mid-December.
The Rasmussen poll found that’s true in Missouri, too. Forty-eight percent of the state’s likely voters approve of Obama’s performance while 53 percent disapprove.
“His poll numbers have flipped,” Steve Smith said of Obama. Smith is a professor of political science at Washington University in St. Louis.
Carnahan also must overcome the state’s apparent tilt to the right. In 2008, Missourians elected Democrat Jay Nixon as governor but gave GOP presidential nominee John McCain a narrow victory — a vote that shattered the state’s best-in-the-nation status as a White House bellwether.
Energizing Democrats could be tough.
“She faces challenges in terms of keeping the base enthusiastic and passionate,” McCaskill said of Carnahan. “In Missouri, the side that is most motivated is the side that has the edge.”
Blunt, meanwhile, must overcome grass-roots anger over soaring deficits, stimulus packages and bank bailouts. If that thinking solidifies, longtime congressional incumbents could face long odds next year. Blunt was elected to the House in 1996 and has been a prominent member of the chamber’s Republican leadership.
Blunt also faces a primary challenge from Missouri Sen. Chuck Purgason, a Caulfield Republican who has sharply criticized both parties for out-of-control spending.
“If it’s a throw-the-bums-out race, the first question that needs to get settled is, ‘Who’s the bum?’ ” said John Hancock, a Republican political consultant. “That’s certainly what she (Carnahan) is going to attempt.”
The Carnahan-Blunt ballet features a pair of contrasting melodies.
The first: Blunt’s strong comeback after struggling in the first half of this year, when little went right.
His connections with former House GOP leader Tom DeLay and disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff were a concern. A minor dispute over property taxes on his multimillion-dollar Washington home raised eyebrows. Carnahan also held a significant early lead in fundraising.
Some Missouri Republicans spent the early part of the year looking for an alternative.
“I was anxious because I thought at that point, frankly, Roy had very little chance, which shows you how much politics can change in seven months,” said Woody Cozad, a former chairman of the state Republican Party who is now a lobbyist and consultant.
Enthusiasm for Blunt’s candidacy began to swell over the summer, when other prominent Republicans — including Sarah Steelman, a former state treasurer — decided not to challenge Blunt. It accelerated when Blunt began crisscrossing the state, out-fundraising Carnahan in the process.
“He put this race on his back and carried it,” said GOP consultant Jeff Roe, who supports Blunt. “This is the classic case of the candidate doing what it takes to win.”
Through Sept. 30, Blunt had raised $3.3 million to Carnahan’s $3.2 million.
Other Republicans, though, said Blunt’s comeback was based largely on dissatisfaction with Obama and Democratic policies and not anything that Blunt did. Recent polls showed almost 60 percent of respondents said they thought the country was on the wrong track — a 15 percent increase since June and a clear threat to the Democrats.
“I’ve done what I wanted to do in 2009,” Blunt said, adding: “We’ve seen what happens to the country when you make a choice based on a slogan and then you find out the specifics of change are not necessarily the change you like. … Are we creating more jobs? Are we doing the right things on energy and health care? That’s what people are talking about.”
Carnahan countered that the race ultimately will have little to do with Obama and will be more about the records of the two nominees.
“I’m going to be standing on the side of Missourians … and not on the side of the corporate special interests that seem to have way too much influence on what goes on in Washington,” she said.
Blunt has responded with a version of the “Where Is Robin Carnahan?” blues: Blunt argues his likely opponent won’t take a stand on the issues.
“Flash! Bulletin! Carnahan Emerges from Shadows; Will Be Live, in a Room ... with News Reporters!” a December Blunt campaign statement said.
Earlier this year Blunt challenged Carnahan to a series of public debates, but the offer went nowhere.
The Democrat doesn’t buy the idea that she’s not taking positions, even though she was vague earlier this year on such issues as a card check for union organizing, which would eliminate secret ballots.
“I’ve been pretty clear about where I stand on a number of issues,” Carnahan said. “Let’s take health care. My principles have not changed.”
Carnahan, 48, has one distinct advantage: As of now, she has no primary opponent.
Blunt, 59, must confront a challenge from his party’s conservative wing. Missouri’s relatively small but energetic “tea party” movement is distrustful of both parties and may have found a champion in Purgason.
“There’s a need for new leadership from people who know that two plus two equals four, and when you spend five you’re losing one,” Purgason said. “When Representative Blunt was in the leadership … the deficit grew almost $1.5 trillion. Republicans have proved they can’t balance the budget either.”
Blunt, though, said he expects “movement conservatives” and tea-partiers to eventually join his effort. He also expects a flood of money and campaign commercials from interest groups and other independent organizations on both sides.
One ad that already has aired — by the League of Conservation Voters — shows oil dripping from the hand of an actor playing Blunt while the screen lists donations to the congressman from energy companies. (Blunt opposes the pollution-control bill known as cap and trade.)
According to one calculation, the group has spent nearly $500,000 since Nov. 20 to run the spot in Missouri. Blunt’s campaign calls the ad “mudslinging.”
There is a wild card that makes the outcome of the dance even harder to predict: Oct. 16 is the 10th anniversary of the plane crash that killed Mel Carnahan. Voters can expect a spate of news stories just three weeks before Election Day that focus on the tragedy and the Carnahan family’s reaction to it.
The attention could prove significant.
“The only way it could make a difference is if the race is close,” said George Connor, a political science professor at Missouri State University in Springfield