Primary to pit Clay against Carnahan

U.S. Rep. Russ Carnahan kicked off Missouri’s 2012 election season with an aggressive political move.

Positioning himself near the front of the line Tuesday on the first day of candidacy filing, Carnahan signed up to run in the 1st Congressional District — initiating a Democratic primary challenge against U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay, who has held the St. Louis seat for the past dozen years.

None too pleased, Clay struck a defiant pose.

“Game on,” Clay told a reporter after Carnahan filed for office and then greeted Clay standing in line.

The opening of Missouri’s candidacy filing period drew hundreds of political hopefuls to Jefferson City in what has become a biennial ritual. Candidates who file on the first day draw numbers to see who gets listed first on the Aug. 7 primary ballot on the belief that the top billing attracts extra votes. But this year’s first day of filing was far from normal.

Because of court challenges to district boundaries created after the 2010 census, scores of candidates couldn’t be sure the districts in which they were filing would remain the same until the filing period ends March 27 — or until election time.

Carnahan, for example, had hoped the Supreme Court would strike down the new congressional districts enacted last year by the Republican-led Legislature, which had to squeeze nine seats into eight because Missouri’s population failed to keep pace with the nation’s. But as of Tuesday, the state’s highest court still had not ruled.

If the map is upheld, the 3rd Congressional District that

Carnahan has represented since 2005 would be carved into pieces and reassigned to several surrounding districts. Until Tuesday, Carnahan had steadfastly affirmed he would run again in 2012 but had remained silent about in which district he would run.

Carnahan said he filed in the reshaped 1st District because it encompasses his house, which he said makes him as much of an incumbent as Clay. But Carnahan said he still hopes the Supreme Court will invalidate the new congressional boundaries, which he described as “clearly and badly gerrymandered.”

“Chaos seems to be the new normal in politics in Missouri,” Carnahan said. “But we’ll get through this.”

Clay said he was disappointed Carnahan is challenging him.

“I’m sure most Democrats are,” Clay said, “because it doesn’t help us as far as trying to win back the House. We need to pick up 25 seats, and you don’t pick up 25 seats by taking away one.”

Missouri’s 1st District is an overwhelmingly Democratic seat, meaning the winner of the primary is likely to prevail against any Republican candidate in the Nov. 6 general election.

Carnahan’s other option would have been to run in the newly redrawn 2nd Congressional District, a Republican-leaning seat being left vacant because U.S. Rep. Todd Akin is instead running for U.S. Senate. But Carnahan could have encountered a difficult race against former Missouri Republican Party Chairwoman Ann Wagner, a proficient fundraiser and experienced grass-roots organizer who is the front-runner in 2nd District.

“I’m sure that Congressman Carnahan and Congressman Clay are going to have a — I wish them a good, spirited race,” Wagner said as she waited to file for office Tuesday. “I’m going to stay focused on things in the 2nd District.”

Missouri’s congressional districts are not the only ones still unsettled. The state Supreme Court has yet to rule on a challenge to the state House districts. And the high court previously struck down the state Senate districts, ordering that reapportionment process to start from scratch. A new bipartisan commission released a tentative state Senate map last week, but it cannot be finalized until after a 15-day public comment period and also could face a legal challenge.

Russ Carnahan’s sister, Robin Carnahan, is secretary of state, whose job it is to accept candidate filings and preside over Missouri’s elections. Although the uncertainty over district boundaries was not the fault of the secretary of state’s office, it nonetheless was the entity having to deal with the problem on Tuesday.

“What I’m disappointed about is it causes a lot of confusion for voters and for people who might want to step up and decide they want to run for something,” said Robin Carnahan. “It doesn’t reflect well on the process that they can’t do what would seem to be the most straight-forward of tasks, and that is settle on the boundaries within a timeline that’s dictated by statute.”

The first day of filing confirmed Missouri will have numerous contested primaries, including in the Republican contests to challenge Democratic U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill and Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon, and in both the Republican and Democratic races for lieutenant governor.

The first person waiting in the filing line Tuesday was Republican gubernatorial candidate Dave Spence, who was celebrating his 54th birthday. With a coffee cup in hand, he got to the secretary of state’s office about an hour before filing opened. It paid off when he drew a lower ballot-placement number than fellow Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Randles.

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