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Robin Carnahan declares for U.S. Senate seat

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 3, 2009 - Missouri Secretary of State Robin Carnahan, 47, declared her candidacy for the U.S. Senate Tuesday, saying she wants to "stop the political bickering and start solving problems."

The announcement was not unexpected. Even before it was official, some prominent state Democrats, including Attorney General Chris Koster, had expressed support for Carnahan.

Carnahan's run sets up a potential clash between members of two of the best-known political families in the state -- Carnahan and Rep. Roy Blunt, R-Stafford, who is expected to make a strong bid for the Republican nomination to succeed Sen. Christopher S. Bond. Bond said last month he was not seeking re-election next year after four terms in the Senate.

Carnahan, 47, entered the Senate race less than two months after garnering 1.74 million votes in her re-election campaign -- the most votes ever cast for a candidate in Missouri. She made her announcement on a new website.

Carnahan's mother, Jean Carnahan, served for two years in the Senate after her husband, Gov. Mel Carnahan, died in a plane crash right before the 2000 election. Mel Carnahan out-polled Sen. John Ashcroft, and Jean Carnahan was named to the seat. She lost in 2002 to Jim Talent, who then was defeated in 2006 by Claire McCaskill.

Robin Carnahan's brother, Russ, serves in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Roy Blunt's son, Matt Blunt, retired after one term as governor. The elder Blunt served as Missouri secretary of state and ran unsuccessfully for governor before joining the House. 

In her statement declaring her candidacy, Robin Carnahan listed these issues as priorities: "rebuilding our economy so that it works for everyone ... making government accountable for every nickel it spends ... and cracking down on the fraud and abuse both on Wall Street and in Washington."

Neither Carnahan nor Blunt has a lock on the nomination. Others said to be interested in the Senate race include former state Treasurer Sarah Steelman on the Republican side and U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay on the Democratic side. But observers said each would bring strengths to a race that will attract a lot of nationwide attention -- and money -- because it will be for an open seat.

"It is a year that you would expect Republicans to be a little bit more on the upswing," said political scientist Dave Robertson at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

He said Carnahan showed last year she is a "formidable candidate with formidable support and formidable name recognition. She will have those same strengths going into the Senate race."

But, he noted, "Democrats do not have a decisive advantage in this state at this point. Republicans have a strong organization, and the Carnahan name, like the Blunt name, is not beloved in every Democratic household in the state of Missouri."

What Carnahan will need, Robertson added, will be a campaign that can win over swing voters in suburban areas.

George Connor, a political scientist at Missouri State University in Springfield, said Carnahan's career as secretary of state has been good for the most part, though some conservatives may be unhappy with ballot language she has approved for issues like stem cell research.

Connor said that Carnahan could succeed by taking McCaskill's successful outstate strategy -- and doing it better.

"Even though she was born in Houston, Mo., McCaskill really cut her political teeth in Kansas City," he said. "When she got into an RV and went out to chicken fries, it was a bit of a stretch. When Robin Carnahan gets out in farm fields filled with manure, that's really her roots."

Declaring her candidacy 21 months ahead of the election should help Carnahan, particularly financially, said Terry Jones, a political scientist at UMSL.

"It was going to be unlikely that anyone of a serious stature was going to oppose her anyway," Jones said. "But getting in early and raising money early also will deter anybody who might think about becoming a successful candidate."

How strong the family factor will be is hard to determine at this point, the analysts said.

"Dynasties are not unusual in Missouri and not unique to Missouri," Robertson said. "It's not going to have a decisive impact on the race."

Added Connor: "If you look at my students, they don't even remember Mel Carnahan. If they (Carnahan and Blunt) run against each other, the dynasty issue is a wash."

Another factor likely to figure strongly in the Senate election is how the Obama administration is perceived at midterm. Traditionally, the party out of power gains ground in years when the White House is not at stake. But given the reputation of Washington in some circles, that angle may not be so prominent as it often has been.

"Congressman Blunt can be tied closely to Washington insiders and K Street and that sort of thing," Connor said. "There's a lot of ammunition to throw at Congressman Blunt.

"If you're in the House," added Jones, "you have to cast hundreds of votes, and some of those votes are likely to be unpopular -- or can be framed in such a way as to appear unpopular."

Besides, Jones noted, given the historic nature of changes in Washington and the current financial crisis, it may be wise to take the traditional advice used for financial investments - past performance is no guarantee of future results.

"You don't want to overweight history in 2010," Jones said.