Clay and Carnahan get personal as both seek to preserve congressional careers
The worst fear for many area Democrats has come to pass, as the rhetoric ramps up between U.S. Reps. William Lacy Clay Jr. and Russ Carnahan, who are battling in the Aug. 7 primary over who gets to remain in Congress.
Tossed into the same 1st District by redistricting, the two Democratic congressmen are each trying to make the case to voters that he’s the better qualified and the more vigorous in promoting their party’s progressive agenda. Each is also out to discredit the other guy.
And unlike some Democrats elsewhere, Carnahan and Clay are each making the point that he’s the stronger, more effective supporter of President Barack Obama.
On Wednesday, after the House voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act, both congressmen swiftly issued statements emphasizing their opposition to any repeal effort, and their support for the law's provisions.
But for the most part, Clay and Carnahan are primarily focused on each other -- and the last weeks of their contest.
"Our campaign is on the air, we’re on the streets, the energy is building around it," said Clay in an interview.
Said Carnahan campaign manager Maurice Henderson: “You’re definitely going to hear from us in various ways" until the election.
Both candidates hail from longstanding – and powerful – political families and have known each other for decades.
Clay, 55, and Carnahan – who celebrated his 54th birthday Tuesday – served together in the General Assembly in the late 1990s.
Clay’s father, William L. Clay Sr., is the former 1st District congressman and his uncle, Irving Clay, was a longtime city alderman.
Carnahan’s father, the late Mel Carnahan, is a former governor, and his mother, Jean Carnahan, is a former member of the U.S. Senate. Carnahan’s sister, Robin Carnahan, is Missouri’s current secretary of state. Russ Carnahan’s grandfather, A.S.J. Carnahan, also served in Congress.
Such political backgrounds help explain why many party leaders have gotten so tense about the Carnahan-Clay contest – and why it’s also gotten a bit personal between the candidates.
“I assumed this guy was my friend," Clay said, a tinge of bitterness in his voice.
Clay claims the public support of most of the top Democrats in the state and region, including Gov. Jay Nixon, St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley and St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay.
The mayor is to be featured in one of Clay’s yet-to-be-aired TV spots, the congressman confirmed.
Clay also has the backing of the state AFL-CIO and the Greater St. Louis Labor Council.
Carnahan, though, has won the endorsements of the region’s powerful firefighters unions, the Missouri Fraternal Order of Police, and the Amalgamated Transit Union.
Both candidates won the endorsement of the Missouri chapter of the National Education Association, the state's largest teachers' group.
Carnahan also has obtained the support of a majority of the Democratic ward and township groups in the new 1st District.
Henderson noted that Carnahan even snagged the endorsement of the Democratic leaders in the 28th Ward, Clay’s home turf. The campaign manager points to a letter sent out by the Clay campaign to his 28th Ward allies, in which they were given the wrong date for the endorsement meeting.
Henderson contends the incident shows how Carnahan can be more effective.
Anger lingers over redistricting
Since last year, Carnahan has publicly blamed Clay for the predicament in which they have found themselves. Clay denies any involvement and is angry over his rival's continued assertions.
The Republican-controlled General Assembly drew up the congressional district lines in 2011 to reflect the 2010 census numbers. Because Missouri was losing one of its current nine congressional districts, Carnahan quickly became the GOP’s prime target among the state’s three Democratic members of the U.S. House.
Clay and Emanuel Cleaver in Kansas City hold the other two Democratic seats. Both are African-Americans, adding a racial element to the situation.
The final map preserved districts for the state’s six Republicans in Congress, plus Clay and Cleaver. Carnahan’s 3rd District was carved up among three districts, including Clay’s 1st District.
Nixon vetoed the new boundary map in 2011, but the General Assembly overrode his veto, thanks to four Democrats in the state House who joined the Republicans. Two of the Democrats came from Clay’s district and two from Cleaver’s.
Carnahan contends that Clay pressured the two legislators – Penny Hubbard and Jamilah Nasheed – to override the governor. Clay says he did not and that he has written statements from legislators to back him up.
Clay contended that Carnahan should have been more active himself in blocking the redistricting map from passing the General Assembly. “Any Democratic (state) senator from the 3rd Congressional District could have stood up on the Senate floor and blocked the bill, if they really wanted to preserve that seat for Mr. Carnahan, and they didn’t do it,” Clay said.
Clay also confirmed reports that he and Carnahan had words on the U.S. House floor following the override vote in Jefferson City. “He hurled profanities at me,” Clay said.
Carnahan subsequently was encouraged by some national Democratic leaders to run in the 2nd District, where 40 percent of Carnahan’s current district ended up. Carnahan has replied that the 2nd District remains largely Republican and notes that his own residence – and key Democratic parts of his district – were put in the 1st,.
Based on population alone, the primary outcome is not a slam dunk for either Democratic candidate. About 20 percent of the new 1st District came from Carnahan's now defunct 3rd District.
The new 1st District is predominantly Democratic but less so than Clay's current 1st District. The new district also has a smaller minority population than the current 1st. Roughly half of the district's population is African-American, with another 6 percent from other minorities.
The only sure bet is that the Aug. 7 Democratic victor will be in a strong position to win the seat outright in November.
Two Republicans are competing in the district's GOP primary: Robyn Hamlin, who sought the seat in 2010, and Martin D. Baker. Both have been appearing at Republican events for months, but neither has spent much money on their campaign.
Battles over voting records
For all the sparring over the new map, both campaigns have most recently been focusing on the candidates’ voting records.
Each camp has cited votes alleged to run counter to a true progressive record, and each camp has accused the rival of mischaracterizing his record or improperly isolating a particular vote.
For the most part, Clay and Carnahan have held similar views on fiscal and social issues. Both supported the Affordable Care Act and other aspects of the Obama administration’s program. Both support reproductive rights.
“This election is about my record,” Clay said. “About my ability to work with other elected officials in order to enhance and to benefit the St. Louis region.”
Carnahan and his allies, notably the police and firefighters groups, say that Carnahan has been more effective in pursuing federal help for the St. Louis area. Henderson asserted that’s why rank-and-file Democratic activists are lining up behind Carnahan.
Carnahan most recently has been attacking Clay’s attendance record, citing it as the lowest among members of the Missouri delegation. “At the end of the day, Russ has a track record of showing up,’’ Henderson said. “Congressman Clay consistently has had a problem in showing up for key votes.”
Clay said his attendance record was still over 90 percent. “I missed about 7 percent of the votes,” Clay said. Carnahan “has missed about 2 percent.”
If re-elected, “I will recommit myself to reach 100 percent,” Clay said. Even so, he added, “It’s what you do when you’re there. It’s how you vote.”
The last weeks of campaigning could get even more personal. Clay said he plans during the final weeks to emphasize that “I am born and bred in St. Louis.”
Clay did attend high school and college in suburban Washington, while his father was in Congress, but he added, “I always returned to St. Louis every summer during my formative years.”
Carnahan grew up in Rolla, Mo. He made an unsuccessful run for Congress in 1990 in southeast Missouri, before moving to St. Louis and practicing law. Asserted Clay: “I haven’t been jumping all over the congressional map to find a district I can run in.”