St. Louis Public Radio News
10:51 am
Tue October 26, 2010

Martin challenges democratic tradition in Mo. third district

ST. LOUIS – (Transcript)

Missouri's Third District is about as blue as you get.

The GOP hasn't held the seat since William Cole was ousted in 1948. Just five Republicans have represented the Third since the end of the Civil War.

But a newcomer to elected office is making the race a little less comfortable for the Democratic incumbent this year.

St. Louis Public Radio's Rachel Lippmann takes a look at this year's contest between incumbent Russ Carnahan and his Republican foe, Ed Martin.

--

It's a Wednesday afternoon, 20 days before the midterm elections, and Russ Carnahan is joining the retirees of Laborers Local 110 for their monthly luncheon.

The crowd that has gathered for German food is the base for Democrats in the district - mostly white union members. And in the eyes of Local 110 president Gary Elliot, they need a bit of a reminder why Carnahan is their man.

Elliot: "If you guys liked the way that Ed Martin screwed up Missouri politics, you'll love the way he's going to take that same attitude to Washington, DC. Let's get him elected, get him back in there."

Elliot doesn't think Carnahan will lose the election. He says union retirees and active members know that electing Martin would be like dumping gasoline on the economic fire. But he thinks it will be closer than it's been.

Elliot: "There's no doubt that Ed Martin is getting down into areas that traditionally he would probably get asked to leave to put it nicely. But I think that's because people are searching for an answer."

Carnahan's closest race was his first. The last couple of years, he's won by a landslide.

According to the polls, he's winning this year as well - but the margin is much tighter. One had Carnahan drawing less than 50 percent.

Carnahan isn't worried. The generic Congressional ballot, he says, has been moving his party's way.

Carnahan: "I am confident in talking to people here, their enthusiasm, their belief that the country needs to continue to make progress and not go backwards."

Ed Martin sees things totally differently.

Martin: "I think people think that the direction of the country is the wrong way."

Most voters probably know Martin as the man who had to resign as chief of staff to Governor Matt Blunt after firing Blunt's deputy counsel, who later sued for wrongful termination and won, costing the state almost $2 million.

These days, Martin, who is Carnahan's polar opposite on almost every issue, is presenting himself as the man best in tune with the needs of the Third Congressional district.

Martin: "People are worried in this district about jobs, and we haven't really deviated from that topic and discussion. What does it mean to say we want to create jobs, what does it mean to say we will fight for American jobs, what is Congressman Carnahan's record?"

Martin has raised a lot of money, and outside groups are pouring in thousands of dollars for television advertising. But the campaign, relying on volunteers and the candidate himself, has also dropped 155,000 pieces of literature.

Bob Atchisson calls himself the cat herder - it's his job to coordinate those hundreds of volunteers.

He's driving a part of the 13-hundred square mile district making sure the group out knocking doors has everything they need.

Atchisson's lived in the Third for most of his life. In the past, he says, election results felt like a foregone conclusion. But he says one night, while making his rounds, he counted 18 Ed Martin signs to one Russ Carnahan sign.

Atchisson: "It's a different year. That's what we just keep saying, it's such a different year. Traditional areas like Webster Groves where you wouldn't expect to see signs from a Republican, Ed's up everywhere."

Atchisson says the 2010 election represents a sea change in the district. Jefferson College political science professor Dedric Lee disagrees.

Lee: "This particular race may be more the exception. The anti-Pelosi/Obama camps, right now, they're pretty strong, and they're making inroads into the voters. If Carnahan does well, I think this may possibly ward off some challengers for the next two or three elections."

The bigger concern for Carnahan, Lee says, may be the result of the 2012 redistricting, which will be done by Republicans in Jefferson City.