Talent Pool ’06

Missouri Democrats Search for Challenger

Posted January 25, 2005 at 5:46pm

Still recovering from an electoral whitewash in 2004, Missouri Democrats are pointing toward the 2006 re-election race of Sen. Jim Talent (R) as their best chance to reclaim a foothold in the state’s power structure.

Once the most volatile of swing states, Missouri has tipped toward Republicans over the past three elections as suburban and rural voters have abandoned the Democratic Party in droves.

Last November, President Bush won the Show Me State by 6 points over Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry (D), double his victory margin in the state in 2000.

Republicans also won the open governor’s race and re-elected Sen. Kit Bond (R) by his largest margin ever.

With those gains, Republicans now control five of the eight statewide offices including both Senate seats. They also won majorities in the state Senate in 2001 and the state House in 2002.

“Missouri is basically a conservative state,” said Lloyd Smith, who managed the Bush campaign in Missouri in 2004. “Is it a red state forever? Forever is an awful long time.”

Democrats believe they can — and must — reverse Republican gains when Talent stands for a full, six-year term or face the possibility that Missouri will be forgotten by the national party come 2008.

“It is very important for Missouri Democrats to field a strong Senate candidate in 2006,” said one Democratic consultant, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “We can’t afford to have Missouri written off as a totally red state.”

Talent won the seat in 2002 when he defeated appointed Sen. Jean Carnahan (D). In doing so, he claimed the final four years left on the term of the late Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan (D), who was posthumously elected over then-Sen. John Ashcroft (R) in 2000. Mel Carnahan was killed in a plane crash three weeks before the election, and his wife was appointed to the seat by Mel Carnahan’s successor, acting Gov. Roger Wilson (D).

A sign of the urgency in Democratic circles surrounding the 2006 Senate race came on Jan. 10 when a group of high-powered party officials convened in Jefferson City to plot strategy for the next two years.

Among the participants were Reps. William Lacy Clay and Russ Carnahan, St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay and the minority leaders in the state House and state Senate.

Clay refused comment when contacted about the nature of those proceedings.

The glaring hole in Democrats’ plan is a top-tier candidate willing to take the plunge.

State Auditor Claire McCaskill, who narrowly lost the governorship in November, is seen as Senate Democrats’ strongest potential nominee but has already said she will run for re-election to her current office in 2006. She is also reportedly considering a rematch against Gov. Matt Blunt (R) in 2008.

With McCaskill a non-factor, Democrats are hoping to convince Wilson, state Attorney General Jay Nixon, former Lt. Gov. Joe Maxwell or newly elected Secretary of State Robin Carnahan to make a bid.

Maxwell appears to be the most likely of the group to run, though even he is far from a sure thing.

The former lieutenant governor seriously considered the Senate race in the spring of 2003 before bowing out citing family concerns — and a belief that Bond could not be beaten.

Maxwell retired from office in 2004 to care for his ailing wife, whose medical condition has now stabilized, and his two young daughters.

In a recent interview with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Maxwell said he would consider another run for office, but his comments were hardly music to Senate Democrats’ ears.

“It would still be my goal someday to be a governor of Missouri,” Maxwell told the paper.

He did not return multiple calls seeking comment for this story.

Robin Carnahan, the daughter of Mel and Jean and the sister of Russ, is seen as a rising star in Missouri politics after defeating the Speaker of the state House in the race for secretary of state last November.

Robin Carnahan is clearly the sentimental favorite of a number of party loyalists, who want her to avenge her mother’s defeat.

But it seems unlikely that Robin Carnahan will pivot so quickly after winning statewide to take on Talent.

If Nixon decided to enter the race, it would be his third Senate bid in 18 years.

He took 32 percent against then-Sen. John Danforth (R) in 1988; 12 years later he took 44 percent against Bond in a race largely defined by the rift between the Democratic candidate and the black community.

Nixon has been the state’s top cop since 1992, and his poll numbers are extremely solid, according to informed sources.

But Nixon, like McCaskill and Maxwell, seems more interested in running for governor than coming to Washington, D.C.

Wilson, who was recently re-elected party chairman, is seen as a long-shot candidate.

As lieutenant governor he stunned the political establishment by deciding not to challenge then-Secretary of State Bob Holden in the 2000 Democratic primary for governor. Holden defeated Talent that fall but lost in a primary to McCaskill four years later.

Wilson’s decision to pass on a gubernatorial race seems to have effectively ended his political career in the eyes of many political observers.

“Wilson hasn’t served for four years and declined to make a statewide race when he had the chance,” said a knowledgeable Democratic consultant.

Regardless of the eventual Democratic nominee, Talent is a formidable foe.

He held the suburban St. Louis 2nd district from 1992 to 2000 when he vacated it for his ultimately unsuccessful governor’s race.

But with his defeat of Jean Carnahan, Talent re-established himself as a rising star in Republican politics.

During his first two years in the Senate, Talent has been a low-key presence, focusing much of his time on policy rather than politics. He is one of 12 Deputy Majority Whips in the Senate, charged with rounding up votes on key legislation.

And, his allies point out, Talent has shown a willingness to work across party lines. He is expected to introduce a bill today with California Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) that attempts to curb methamphetamine abuse.

Talent has proven to be a very solid fundraiser in his past races. Though he ended September with just $364,000 in the bank, he raised and spent more than $8 million on both his 2002 Senate and 2000 gubernatorial races.

“Jim has done what he needs to do to position himself following the election of 2002,” said Smith, who managed that race for Talent.