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Storied Political Families Square Off in Missouri

Russ Carnahan and William Lacy Clay Will Battle for 1st District

Kelley McCall/Associated Press
Rep. William Lacy Clay (above) will face fellow Missouri Democratic Rep. Russ Carnahan in the state’s 1st district primary after Carnahan’s district was dismantled during reapportionment. According to some lawmakers, Carnahan was urged by Democratic leadership to run against a Republican in a nearby district, but he declined.

House Democratic leaders tried multiple times to intervene to avoid an intraparty race between Missouri Reps. William Lacy Clay and Russ Carnahan but were ultimately unable to dissuade Carnahan from filing Tuesday to run against Clay.

“It pits two of the state’s most prominent political families against one another,” Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.) said. “It’s probably, for those of us who have been in Missouri politics for a long time, a tragedy that is not going to end well.”

Cleaver, chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, said he was in the room months ago when House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel (N.Y.) encouraged Carnahan to run in a nearby GOP-held district.

A Democratic aide with knowledge of the matter said Israel tried several other times to dissuade Carnahan, even before the new Missouri map that obliterated his current district was unveiled. 

“It’s been a continual effort,” the aide said. “Israel offered financial help to try to convince him to take out a Republican.”

Carnahan, however, denied on Tuesday that he was told directly to run in another district, saying only that “people talked about options.”

“No, leadership has not, other than people having conversations,” he said. “Obviously it’s the job of the Caucus to maximize Democratic seats. The only way, and the best way, to do that in Missouri has been what I’ve taken a leadership role on, and that’s to challenge these districts in court.”

He also said that he did not give Pelosi or Israel notice that he would run against Clay. “In Missouri, chaos is the new normal,” he explained.

Carnahan said he still hopes the state’s Supreme Court will hold the new map unconstitutional and that the situation will be averted. But he said his choice to challenge Clay was spurred by Clay’s backing of the redistricting map, despite the fact that it reduces St. Louis-area districts from three to two.

“It’s unfortunate that he supported and didn’t work against these maps. And had Democrats stuck together, these maps could never have been passed,” he said.

The redrawn Congressional map was vetoed by Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon but was passed into law over his objection when Republicans, who control the Legislature, got the help of some Democratic African-American legislators. Democrats in the state say those votes were shepherded by Cleaver with the tacit approval of Clay.

“In one sense, if Lacy and Cleaver had been a little bit less self-interested and had worked on a map that would have been good for everybody, Russ might be in a different place today,” one Missouri Democratic strategist said. “Instead, they got on the life raft and pulled up the rope behind them.”

Carnahan’s current 3rd district was essentially eliminated in redistricting. He has backed a so-far-unsuccessful court battle waged to overturn the lines, but Tuesday’s filing appeared to be a partial admission of defeat on the judicial front.

In the majority-minority 1st district, both Congressmen will be familiar to voters, but Clay probably has the early edge. Only a third of Carnahan’s current constituents were drawn into the reconfigured 1st.

Cleaver said he and the CBC political action committee will support Clay, insisting that he is the incumbent. That puts Cleaver in a particularly difficult situation because he is close to both Clay and the Carnahan family.

“Lacy Clay is a friend of mine, and I intend to be of whatever help I can be,” he said. “Lacy Clay is not only the incumbent, but he is clearly the frontrunner in this race, and he’s going to end up getting a lot of support from all over.”

But he said he is still holding out hope that the race can be avoided.

“I’m hoping that before filing ends that something will happen or someone will intervene and we can we avert this bus wreck,” he said.

If the primary is a Member-vs.-Member fight, though, the issue of race will be center stage.

“It’s impossible to overlook the minority aspect here,” said Mike Kelley, a St. Louis Democrat who is a former executive director of the Missouri Democratic Party. “There will be a lot of downticket races that will have primaries, particularly in the African-American community, that will drive some turnout in this election. It will be something Caranhan will have to overcome, and it will be something that Clay will have to capitalize on.”

Clay was direct in his statement on Monday.

“I am the Democratic incumbent in Missouri 1. I am running for re-election. I will win decisively,” Clay said.

The 1st district is a safe Democratic seat. Whichever Member wins the primary will easily be re-elected in November. There’s the potential that other people could get in the race, which would shift the dynamic of the primary.

“We’re a long way from knowing what this race is going to look like,” Kelley said. “There, potentially, could be other folks who get in this race.”

Given the liberal makeup of the district, expect to see both Members emphasize their progressive bona fides.

“You’ve got two progressive candidates who are going to compete for the progressive vote, and I think that’s where this race will actually be tipped,” a St. Louis Democratic source said.

But whatever issues dominate the race, expect the contest to be nasty and racially charged.

“Everybody has seen this day coming,” the source added. “But the powder’s lit now.”

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