Another Election, Another Uphill Run To Oust Kit Bond

Posted May 2, 2003 at 2:42pm

It’s no wonder that Sen. Kit Bond (R-Mo.) is a Democratic target. A statewide officeholder for more than 35 years, he has not won more than 53 percent of the vote in any of his three Senate races.

And Bond has lost before when he seemed invulnerable. In 1976, while John Danforth (R) was winning election to an open Senate seat, then-Gov. Bond was defeated for re-election by a former county prosecutor, Joseph Teasdale (D), in a stunning upset.

[IMGCAP(1)] Missouri remains a politically competitive state, but it has clearly been inching toward the GOP. Democrats control the governorship (as they have since 1992), and Bill Clinton carried the state twice. But Republicans now hold both of the state’s Senate seats, both chambers of the Legislature and five of the state’s nine U.S. House seats. A dozen years ago, the Democrats held both houses of the state Legislature and six of the state’s nine Congressional districts.

Unlike Ohio and Pennsylvania, states with similar overall political profiles, Democrats have had a strong bench of candidates in the state for years, with Lt. Gov. Joe Maxwell, state Auditor Claire McCaskill and state Attorney General Jay Nixon all mentioned for higher office. (Nixon has already lost two Senate races, however.)

That’s the good news for the Democrats. But there’s bad news too.

Democrats have lost seven of the state’s past eight Senate races, all but an aberrant election in 2000. Their only winner, Mel Carnahan (D), died in a plane crash shortly before Election Day and was elected posthumously.

The state’s sitting governor, Bob Holden (D), could be an albatross around the neck of any Democrat running next year. The governor’s poll numbers reflect vulnerability, and state Auditor McCaskill is more likely to challenge him in a primary than Bond in the general election.

Interest group ratings show Bond’s voting record is reliably conservative, but he isn’t seen as a “movement conservative” or a point man on social issues. So conservatives will rally to his defense, but swing voters and moderates are still likely to find him acceptable.

The Senator has disposed of a variety of challengers, including two liberal Jewish women from metropolitan St. Louis, then-Lt. Gov. Harriett Woods and St. Louis County Councilwoman Geri Rothman-Serot, as well as Attorney General Nixon, who tried to run as a moderate.

Bond has been attacked aggressively over the years, with opponents portraying him as too close to Big Business and corporate lobbyists, a frequent junketeer, ethically challenged and a slick Washington insider. Yet he has been re-elected again and again.

The Democratic field has not yet taken shape, but insiders say they would be surprised if Lt. Gov. Maxwell doesn’t run.

Maxwell, a former state legislator who hails from Mexico, Mo., the same hometown as Bond, has hired consultants. If he runs, he’s likely to position himself as a Midwest populist, and he is already taking credit for guiding to passage the Missouri SenioRx Program, which gets discounted prescription drugs to the state’s seniors.

But can Maxwell beat Bond? Maybe, but the race would be decidedly uphill.

First, Maxwell is inescapably linked to the embattled Holden, and attacks on the governor, by McCaskill or the eventual GOP gubernatorial nominee, Missouri Secretary of State Matt Blunt, are likely to inflict damage on Maxwell as well.

Secondly, Bond will have more money than he needs, while Maxwell’s fundraising ability is far from certain.

And finally, Bond has demonstrated unusual strength in metro Kansas City, a critical area for any Democrat. While Maxwell’s rural roots make him potentially appealing to rural voters, those key Missouri voters have been moving to the Republican Party, making them a tougher sell for any Democratic nominee.

If the Democrats find a self-funding political neophyte to run, he or she would not have some of Maxwell’s liabilities, but would start without demonstrated political appeal or government experience, and with other potential problems.

Any challenger would start as an underdog against Bond, but the Democrats need Maxwell or someone else on the ballot who is credible enough to take advantage of an anti-Bush, anti-Republican wave that could develop if the national economy doesn’t rebound soon.

“If Kit Bond wins, it’ll be because of Kit Bond. But if Joe Maxwell wins, it will be because of George W. Bush and the economy,” acknowledges one Democrat.