Incumbents do battle in Missouri’s 1st District

ST. LOUIS (AP) — For eight years, congressmen Russ Carnahan and William Lacy Clay often stood side-by-side, two St. Louis Democrats on the same team. That changed in a matter of months.

When Missouri’s Republican-led Legislature was faced with reducing the state’s nine congressional districts to eight following the 2010 Census, the cut came in heavily-Democratic St. Louis. Despite legal wrangling, Carnahan’s former 3rd District was wiped off the map, leaving the veteran Democrats to battle for the 1st District in the Aug. 7 primary.

It’s a tall task for Carnahan, given that it’s been nearly a half-century since someone other than Clay, 56, or his father, William Clay, represented the district in Congress. And while the St. Louis Post-Dispatch has endorsed Carnahan, Clay has powerful political backing: St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay, St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley, Gov. Jay Nixon and several labor unions.

“I think Clay is the clear favorite,” said Terry Jones, a political scientist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

Two little-known Republicans, Robyn Hamlin and Martin Baker, along with Libertarian Robb Cunningham are also running in the district, which now includes all of St. Louis city and a portion of north St. Louis County. The district is roughly 50 percent black and 44 percent white.

Clay and Carnahan have known each other for decades, serving in the Missouri Legislature before stepping up to Congress. And both come from storied political families.

William Clay represented the 1st District for 32 years before retiring in 2000 and giving way to his son, elected that year.

Carnahan, elected to Congress in 2004, is the grandson of U.S. Rep. A.S.J. Carnahan and son of former two-term governor Mel Carnahan, who was so popular he was elected to the Senate in 2000 even though he died in a plane crash three weeks before the election. Mel Carnahan’s wife, Jean, was appointed to the seat but lost in a special election in 2002. Russ Carnahan’s sister, Robin, is Missouri’s secretary of state.

Clay and Carnahan shrugged off any potential awkwardness, as their contest is among 11 nationwide — from Missouri to Pennsylvania to California — in which House incumbents are pitted against each other as a result of redistricting. Seven of the 11 races involve Democrats.

“It’s not unusual — there are several instances around the country,” Carnahan said. “It’s a situation where candidates don’t necessarily get to choose their districts, but the districts choose them.”

Clay said, “It’s not awkward because we’re in the heat of battle.”

The race, if not hostile, has become contentious. Carnahan said Clay didn’t do enough to try and keep the former 3rd District.

“I fought and advocated to keep those two seats,” Carnahan said. “I was disappointed that Congressman Clay worked with the Republicans in the Legislature and the courts to approve those districts that diminish the clout of the region.”

But Clay said he fought hard, even phoning lawmakers to lobby against the change. Clay said in an interview last week that once the state Supreme Court upheld redistricting on May 25, Carnahan should have opted to run in the 2nd District for the seat vacated by Rep. Todd Akin, a Republican who is running for the Senate.

“I know he would have gotten my help,” Clay said. “I think we would have had a better opportunity to keep three Democrats in the Missouri delegation.”

Neither pulls punches when comparing records. Carnahan blasted Clay’s attendance record, saying he has missed several key votes. The legislative tracking project GovTrack.us shows that Clay has missed 39 of 535 votes so far this year, or 7.3 percent. Carnahan has missed 14 — 2.6 percent.

Carnahan is also running TV spots accusing Clay of advocating for predatory lenders and calling the practice “unacceptable.” Clay said Carnahan was intentionally misrepresenting his record. He said he has spoken out for the rent-to-own industry, which is far different than high-interest payday loans.

“I’ve been an advocate for consumer protection all my career,” he said.

Both candidates cite long lists of accomplishments. Clay said he is proud of his role on the Financial Services Committee that helped toughen financial-industry regulations after the recession. He also cites his work as chairman of the Census Subcommittee, which produced what he called the most accurate Census in U.S. history — the very one that has pit him against Carnahan.

Carnahan said he has been an advocate for bipartisanship, and is proud of his record on the Veterans Affairs Committee and Foreign Affairs Committee.

Both also tout their records of constituent service. Carnahan said he regularly meets with voters and has worked hard for projects that benefit St. Louis, including funding for the new Mississippi River Bridge, the Interstate 64 improvement project and improvements to Lambert Airport. Clay said he takes particular pride in helping the people of his district, even helping some fight off foreclosure of their homes.

“Thousands of people have come through our doors and I’m proud of the service we give them,” Clay said.

The state’s redrawn congressional map means six of the eight districts now are solidly or strongly Republican-leaning. Jones, the political scientist, said that fact alone means that regardless of the victor, St. Louis stands to take a hit.

“The kind of clout you have with three (congressmen) is 50 percent better than the clout you have with two,” Jones said.

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