Commentary: Robin Carnahan's outdated campaign rings stale

E. Thomas McClanahan is a columnist for the Kansas City Star.
E. Thomas McClanahan is a columnist for the Kansas City Star. MCT

An interesting thought experiment: Let's take the Senate race in Missouri between Republican Roy Blunt and Democrat Robin Carnahan, and set the wayback machine to four years ago.

If this were 2006, Blunt would be losing badly.

Voters were fed up with the Republican Congress and its chronic scandals and heavy spending.

Carnahan's portrayal of Blunt as the symbol of all that's wrong with Washington would have been devastating.

Blunt, the consummate insider, wouldn't have much to say in reply.

He was the Republican whip, one of Tom Delay's key lieutenants.

He's been stuffing earmarks into legislation for years.

Heck, he even married a lobbyist.

Fast forward into the present, and it's as if we've entered a parallel universe with everything reversed, although Carnahan conducts her campaign as if she's utterly unaware of the turnabout.

She's running the campaign that would have been unstoppable in 2006, except that it's 2010 and the Republican Congress is no longer an issue. Republicans haven't controlled Capitol Hill for four years.

Instead, this election is a referendum on President Obama and the Democratic Congress.

Carnahan is caught running the right campaign at the wrong time, and offering a striking example of the desperate straits Democrats face in this pivotal year.

As of late last week, she was running 5.5 points behind Blunt in the Real Clear Politics average, and it hasn't helped that her efforts to show an affinity for rural, outstate, socially conservative Missouri seem strained, given her urbane persona, degrees in economics and law, and her family background.

She still manages the family cattle farm near Rolla. A photo on her website shows her in a work shirt aboard a faded tractor.

But for Robin Carnahan, somehow the image seems a stretch. It drew a guffaw from a Republican insider, who remarked that as the daughter the late Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan, she grew up with "hot and cold running helicopters."

But even with that, in a perennial swing state like Missouri, she would have had a better-than-even chance — in 2006.

Instead, it's her fate to seek office after her fellow Democrats in Washington have staged the most spectacular display of political incompetence in living memory. Has any party squandered the trust of voters more quickly?

The standing of Democrats this year is even more arresting when you consider that in a recent Wall Street Journal poll, the approval rating of Republicans was actually lower.

That the GOP should nevertheless be ahead in the generic congressional ballot is evidence that Democrats have profoundly frightened voters — especially independents — who have decided to opt for gridlock as the first step to a remedy from the Democrats' runaway agenda.

A recent Gallup survey found that of five major legislative initiatives — the stimulus package, auto bailout, Wall Street bailout, the health care bill and financial regulatory reform — only the latter enjoyed majority support.

The health care bill has become a real liability. In a recent Rasmussen poll, 61 percent of voters at least somewhat favored repeal of the measure, which many Democrats once believed would be a signal "achievement."

Carnahan hasn't found a way to distance herself from this wreckage, assuming she had the inclination.

Indeed, she's endorsed both the stimulus and the health care measure, although she says she would have voted against the Wall Street rescue and has tried to tag her opponent as "Bailout Blunt."

After Republican Sen. Kit Bond announced his retirement, Missouri was one of the few states where Democrats hoped to pick up a Senate seat.

But Carnahan's prospects, which once seemed bright, have faded with the fortunes of her fellow Democrats in Washington.

As former Clinton adviser William Galston wrote recently, "the (Democratic) majority can neither run on its record nor run away from it."