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Carnahans make convention a family affair, as Russ and Robin contemplate post-election futures

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 6, 2012 - CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- With Missouri U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill staying home to campaign, the state's hottest Democrats at the presidential convention arguably are the trio with the same last name: Carnahan.

And none of them will be on this fall’s ballot: one by choice and the other, not.

Missouri Secretary of State Robin Carnahan is leaving office at the end of this year, as is her brother, U.S. Rep. Russ Carnahan, D-St. Louis.

Robin Carnahan chose not to seek re-election, after losing badly in her 2010 bid for the U.S. Senate.  Russ Carnahan isn’t on the Nov. 6 ballot after losing a contentious primary fight with fellow Democrat William Lacy Clay Jr. last month for the redrawn 1st congressional district.

Their mother, former U.S. Sen. Jean Carnahan, has retired from elective politics – but, like her two children, she was among Missouri 102 delegates (plus seven alternates).

The three are believed to be the only trio of related delegates from the same state in Charlotte. But more significantly, their involvement may represent the last time that so many Carnahans are playing active political roles.

For the moment, Russ and Robin Carnahan also are still contemplating what to do next.

Russ Carnahan addressed the Missouri delegation Wednesday morning and laid out his concerns about the political effect of the rise of SuperPACs with anonymous wealthy donors.

In an interview, he decried “the poison of SuperPACs and their involvement in this election. A handful of billionaires go out to buy elections.”

Russ Carnahan echoed the concerns of other Missouri Democrats about what they viewed as GOP efforts to “suppress votes,” especially in the battleground states – which this year, on a presidential level, doesn’t include Missouri.

Russ Carnahan said he plans to focus on helping U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., in her closely watched contest with Republican rival Todd Akin, a congressman from Wildwood.

(Carnahan jabbed at Akin in Wednesday’s speech, quipping that they both serve on the House science committee, but that Akin “probably thought it was the Flat Earth Society.”)

Carnahan and his wife Deborah, a former city judge, recently escorted their college-age sons to Truman State University and the University of Missouri, which, says the congressman, makes the couple “empty-nesters” for the first time.

After the November election, Carnahan, who was particularly active in foreign affairs while in the House, said he’ll focus on what he plans to do next.

His sister, Robin Carnahan, has continued to be in the news even though she’s not running for a third term. Her office has been involved in legal fights over ballot summaries for a couple of issues headed for the Nov. 6 ballot. A judge already has revised one of them.

Robin Carnahan also has been regularly attacked by Republican secretary of state nominee Shane Schoeller, a legislator from Willard, Mo., who asserts in campaign literature and fundraising appeals that she has been too political during her eight years in office. Carnahan disagrees with that claim, but she generally has ignored his repeated jabs.

Carnahan said she had expected to come under fire during the three-way GOP primary, but she’s surprised that the attacks have continued since she is not Schoeller’s Democratic opponent -- Jason Kander, a legislator from Kansas City, is.

Although not campaigning for any candidate, Robin Carnahan has delivered some of the most fiery speeches in recent months at major Democratic events, including the state party’s convention in June.

Her chief message has been that Democrats should be proud of what they stand for and be willing to fight for it.

Still, Carnahan said her primary task this fall is focusing on her administrative role as the state’s chief election official and making sure that the process runs smoothly in November.

What’s next? “I’m not thinking about that this year,’’ she said.

Robin Carnahan also recalled advice from her father, former Gov. Mel Carnahan, who died in a plane crash in 2000 while campaigning for the U.S. Senate. He was elected posthumously, and his widow – Jean Carnahan – was named to serve a two-year term.

“Dad showed me that being in public life and being in private life was something you could do in your career,’’ Robin Carnahan said. “You didn’t have to choose one or the other. He thought he was a better governor because he had spent time in the private sector.”

Robin Carnahan, a cancer survivor, also appears to have taken lessons from her own life and her family’s tragedies. Her eldest brother died in the plane crash that killed her father.

“Life is short,” she said. “I want to be in a place where I can make a difference every day.”

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.