Observers: Carnahan Not Yet Secure

Posted February 28, 2005 at 6:32pm

Retired Rep. Richard Gephardt (D) served Missouri’s 3rd district for 14 terms.

His replacement, Rep. Russ Carnahan (D), might be hard pressed to hold the seat for more than one, according to a number of observers of Missouri politics.

Carnahan won two closer-than-expected races last year to capture the St. Louis-area seat.

In the Democratic primary he narrowly defeated a gaggle of opponents with 23 percent of the vote, even though he failed to win any of the four major jurisdictions in the district. He then won the general election with only 53 percent of the vote; in the previous election Gephardt was able to pull in almost 60 percent.

Carnahan appears to be taking nothing for granted, with his first major fundraiser of the cycle scheduled for later this month.

But Carnahan, the son of the late Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan (D) and former Sen. Jean Carnahan (D-Mo.), could become a victim of high expectations, according to one analyst of Show Me State politics.

“This is a district used to the level of service provided by a guy with leadership resources,” the analyst said. “He’s trying to do it with the staffing level of a freshman.”

Should Carnahan be perceived as weak among Democratic voters, he might face a stiff challenge in a primary.

Dave Drebes of Arch City Chronicle, a Web site that monitors Missouri and Illinois politics, said that although Carnahan has “two years to become ‘not vulnerable,’” a repeat of last year’s primary where a “bunch of people got in and we had a free-for-all” would severely hinder the freshman Congressman’s re-election effort.

It doesn’t help that Carnahan is not particularly popular among some of the powerbrokers in the 3rd district.

“The Carnahan camp is not particularly close to Gephardt’s right-hand-woman, Joyce Aboussie,” according to one consultant. “Not that she’s going to decide who wins, but if you tick off five or six of those people, that’s where he becomes vulnerable.”

Although Gephardt stayed neutral in the primary to succeed him, many of his allies got behind state Sen. Steve Stoll (D), who was thought to be Carnahan’s toughest opponent.

One Democratic strategist thinks that, for the good of the party, Aboussie should throw her weight behind the incumbent.

“I don’t know what Joyce’s problem is; there was a contested primary, her candidate lost. Enough is enough. Democrats are fighting for their lives; let’s stop with the bulls**t.”

If Carnahan does face a primary, which campaign spokeswoman Jennifer Laudano conceded “would not be surprising,” he will likely see a familiar face in the mix: college professor Jeff Smith. An original member of the Dean Dozen, a group of candidates given top priority for financial support by former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean (D) and his insurgent band of liberals, Smith came in a surprising second in the 2004 primary, 1,700 votes shy of knocking off Carnahan.

For his part, Smith is noncommittal about a possible rematch. Currently a visiting professor at Dartmouth College, he said in an e-mail that he plans to return to Missouri later this year and that he “should make a decision about MO 03 by the end of the summer.”

When asked about possible primary opponents for Carnahan, Missouri observers bring up Smith’s name frequently. One pollster familiar with the region thinks that someone with liberal credentials, like Smith, poses the biggest threat to the Congressman.

“I would think his biggest challenge would be a liberal from St. Louis, because that’s the biggest part of the district,” the pollster said. “I think getting someone from the city would be the biggest challenge, hence Jeff Smith.”

Another Democratic consultant said that “Smith ran a pretty good campaign. If he had raised more money, he might have had a shot.” She added that while it is too early to tell whether he will run again, he could be formidable.

It is unclear whether Smith would enjoy the same level of support he got last time from Dean’s old organization, now known as Democracy for America. A spokesman said the group is “just in the process of reorganizing the committee” and that 2006 “isn’t something we’ve considered yet.”

He did note, however, that “in 2004 we didn’t challenge any incumbent” Democrats, a fact that could hurt Smith’s fundraising and organizational efforts.

Now that he is chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Dean himself is likely to remain neutral in a primary — or feel obligated to support the incumbent.

A difficult primary could be just one hurdle in the path of Carnahan’s re-election. Although the district is traditionally a tough one for Republicans, Drebes believes that times are changing.

“The general could be problematic” for Carnahan, he said. “We used to be this swing state; we now have a Republican governor, a Republican House, a Republican Senate. … It’s about a third rural, a third urban; the rural area is pro-life, pro-gun and anti-gay.”

As was first reported on the Web site TempleReport.com, which is run by Missouri Democratic strategist Roy Temple, former Republican National Committee Deputy Chairman Jack Oliver is considering a move back to St. Louis in order to set up shop for a run at Carnahan’s seat in 2006.

An observer notes that “if he were to truly have vast resources available, Jack would be an interesting question mark.”

Oliver is a longtime GOP fundraiser who could have enough money to make the district, which is generally considered out of reach for Republicans, competitive.

A veteran Democratic campaign consultant seemed unworried. He noted that the “district is not particularly hospitable to Republicans, especially Republican lobbyists with strong ties to [President] Bush who haven’t lived in the district for years.”

Oliver himself may have realized this. A source familiar with longtime Gephardt adviser-turned-lobbyist Steve Elmendorf said that he and Oliver “were talking about potential lobbying clients. It sounded like they had specific discussions about business … I got the impression from Steve that the discussions were for more long-term things, and that Jack may be looking to put off political stuff for the medium term.”

Laudano notes that while 2006 is still a long way off, Carnahan is already busy preparing for the next election cycle.

“While [Carnahan] is focused on representing the 3rd district, the campaign team is focused on preparing for a potential primary race,” she said. “We are already raising money, and the Congressman has his first big fundraiser this weekend in St. Louis.”