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Politics

Russ Carnahan's Tough Choice

December 21, 2011

However, in both South St. Louis City and in several district suburbs with substantial black populations, there are significant racial differences in average incomes. Because of higher income and education levels, a slightly higher likelihood of union affiliation, and a lower percentage of voters ineligible due to felony convictions, district whites are likely to turn out at a higher rate than blacks. If white Democrats vote at a rate 5% higher than blacks (25% vs 20%), it would mean that about 47K of projected primary voters are black, and 46K white. That seems to suggest a slight edge for Clay. But it shouldn't. First, district blacks have been voting for Carnahans for decades, since Russ's father Mel was first on a statewide ballot in 1980. They supported Mel over hometown mayor Vince Schoemehl in the gubernatorial primary in 1992, who reciprocated this support with many prominent black gubernatorial appointments that helped him gain much goodwill in the black community. Conversely, few whites will vote for Clay against a credible white candidate; though some white north St. Louis county labor types have voted for Clays since 1968, most district whites have never been represented by Lacy Clay or his father. Also, the Clay name garners mixed feelings among district whites. Clay's father, ex-Rep. William Clay Sr., made his name leading civil rights protests, and was not particularly popular among whites, outside of labor. Most whites who did not love but at least respected Clay, Sr. for his acumen do not accord the son the same respect. Neither congressman has what one would traditionally call crossover appeal, but because of the nine times that Carnahan's father, mother, and sister have appeared on statewide ballots since 1980, district blacks are much more accustomed to supporting Carnahans than whites are to supporting Clays. Finally, as someone who represented a majority-black state Senate district fully contained within the new 1st CD, I can vouch for black district voters' willingness to vote for white candidates who address issues they care about. Overall, there won't be many crossover votes; each family has been prominent for five decades, so most voters possess accurate information regarding the candidates' racial identities. Given the factors described above, I estimate Clay gets 10% of the white vote in the primary (optimistic), and Carnahan gets 15% of the black vote (a conservative estimate). That would leave Carnahan with a narrow 48K-45K vote victory. Finally, Clay is a weak fundraiser who even in the run-up to a potential 2012 challenge has in some quarters failed to raise $100K. Carnahan, conversely, pulled in nearly $2M last cycle. Carnahan, who will likely show $500K+ in the bank at year's end, may raise $1.5-2M for the primary, whereas Clay is unlikely to reach $1M. *** That's not to say it will be easy for Carnahan. It would be nice to have a high-minded debate about the direction of national policy in a time of gripping economic anxiety, but anyone who knows St. Louis politics or the two principals doubts the likelihood of that. It won't be a race between a modern-day Bobby Kennedy and Barack Obama. Instead, given both candidates' limited crossover appeal, observers should prepare for a racially polarizing campaign in the long, sad tradition of St. Louis politics. For Clay to win, he'll need to mobilize blacks around the idea that the 1st CD has been represented by an African-American since 1968 and that a Carnahan victory would be a step backwards. Meanwhile, Carnahan will need to perform a delicate racial and ideological balancing act: appealing to the conservative, ethnic, old-school Democrats in South City who will be less than thrilled about the prospect of Clay as their Congressman, but not in such a way that he turns off blacks or white progressives in gentrifying city neighborhoods and affluent inner-ring suburbs. Can he thread the needle? We shall see. But he shouldn't be written off because of the district's demographics. Although I've seen both congressmen in action, I don't have a strong opinion on who would be a more progressive or effective representative. But my analysis suggests that Carnahan should stop suing and start running - in the 1st CD. Given his near-double-digit underperformance in the 3rd CD last year, he won't be able to turn enough independents to take the Republican-leaning 2nd. But he could win the 1st, and given Clay's "every man for himself" attitude during the redistricting fight, Carnahan should now adopt the same mentality. I can't say that Carnahan will win. But given the Sestak/Romanoff kerfluffles last cycle, the Obama administration is unlikely to offer a federal appointment, and so a 1st CD primary is his best option. It's the advice I'd be following if I'd won in 2004 and found myself in Carnahan's shoes today. - Jeff Smith, a former Missouri State Senator, is a professor in The New School's public policy graduate program. He is the subject of the award winning documentary "Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore" (featuring ex-Hotline Editor Chuck Todd), and he writes about politics and prison at www.recoveringpolitician.com.

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