On Tuesday, August 3, Missouri will hold its U.S. Senate primaries. In November, the victors will face off to fill the seat of Christopher “Kit” Bond, a popular Republican senator who has been in office since 1986.
Despite some gruesome sideshows—including the write-in candidacy of mustachioed white supremacist Glenn Miller, whose radio spots must be heard to be believed—the result of Tuesday’s primaries is basically a foregone conclusion. A recent poll of regularly-voting Missourians, conducted by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and local CBS affiliate KMOV-TV, had secretary of state Robin Carnahan leading her nearest Democratic challenger 87 percent to 5 percent (admittedly with a margin of error of 4 percentage points). In the crowded field for the Republican nomination, we’ve got more of a game on our hands—Representative Roy Blunt’s nearest challenger, Tea Party candidate and state senator Chuck Purgason, has at least managed to break double digits, with 13 percent to Blunt’s 62 percent. 19 percent of likely Republican primary voters remain undecided.
Carnahan and Blunt are both members of Missouri political dynasties. Robin Carnahan’s father, Mel, was governor of Missouri, and unseated incumbent John Ashcroft in the 2000 U.S. Senate race despite having died in a plane crash three weeks before the election. His widow, Jean, served out his term. Robin Carnahan’s brother Russ is a congressman. Roy Blunt’s son Matt served as Missouri secretary of state and then governor; Roy himself is a member of Congress who, as Republican whip, was thought a likely replacement for Tom DeLay as House Majority Leader. Both Blunt and Carnahan have nearly 100 percent name recognition in Missouri—and though voters have been known to confuse which Blunt and which Carnahan are actually on Tuesday’s ballot, the families’ legacies and policy positions are well-known in the state.
If introducing oneself to voters is a major purpose of campaigning in the first place, what will this race actually be about? Post-Dispatch political reporter and columnist Tony Messenger can sum it up in a word: Obama. Missouri bucked its long-cherished reputation as the bellwether state by narrowly choosing McCain in 2008—the President now has a 34 percent approval rating in the state. Proposition C, another August 3 ballot initiative aimed at allowing Missourians to opt out of the federal health insurance mandate, will be the first statewide referendum on the national health care overhaul signed into law in March. With no organized opposition, it looks likely to pass, though most legal experts have told local reporters that the law would have no effect, and is unconstitutional besides. (The Kansas City Star editorial board suggests the measure be rechristened “The Futile Gesture Act.”) Yet its backers hope it can send a message straight from the heartland to the White House.
Messenger has covered Missouri politics for over a decade for newspapers in Columbia and Springfield, and for the past two years for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Recently he told CJR three things he knows about this Senate race that you oughta. His thoughts, edited and condensed, appear below.
1. A Blunt/Carnahan matchup will serve as a conduit for national issues.
The fact that the Blunts and the Carnahans are both dynasties to some degree allows voters to focus on other issues. Neither candidate can really do anything to increase their name recognition. Carnahan is such a name that’s been around in Missouri politics for so long, longer than Blunt; within the Democratic Party it’s sort of a revered name but not necessarily with Republicans. Matt Blunt, the former governor, was not very popular at the end of his term, which hurts Roy Blunt a little bit, but the Blunts are still very popular with Republicans. To the extent that family associations damage either candidate, they sort of cancel each other out.
What I think this race is going to be about is President Obama. That’s what Roy Blunt is trying to make it about. And Robin Carnahan helped him a little bit by having Obama at a campaign rally in Kansas City earlier this month. Blunt was up with a TV ad within a week, using an image from that event with Obama saying, “If I had Robin Carnahan’s vote, we’d have cap-and-trade.” And cap-and-trade is very unpopular in Missouri because we’re a heavy coal plant state. So a big theme in the Blunt campaign is that we need to keep this Senate seat Republican, so that Democrats can’t just push through whatever they want.