Russ Carnahan and Lacy Clay square off in city primary | St. Louis Public Radio

Russ Carnahan and Lacy Clay square off in city primary

Aug 3, 2012

One of the biggest match-ups in next Tuesday’s primary will pit Congressman Russ Carnahan against fellow Democrat William ‘Lacy’ Clay to represent the party in the 1st Congressional District.

The two incumbents are have waged heated, and at times spiteful campaigns. The upshot is one less Democrat in Washington for Missouri, and city voters will choose between two well-established political dynasties.

Family trees and new maps

The relationships between the Carnahan and Clay families extends way back to when Bill Clay was Missouri’s first black congressman, and Mel Carnahan built relationships with the black community to successfully run for governor, and by most accounts that partnership had been passed on to the two sons, congressmen Russ Carnahan and Lacy Clay.

Oh how times change.  Fast-forward four years and Carnahan’s 3rd Congressional District is being eliminated through population loss, a fact which enabled the GOP-lead General Assembly to redraw the congressional maps, essentially dumping all of the urban Democrats from Carnahan’s district into Clay’s 1st District.

Governor Nixon vetoed the new maps, but his veto was overturned by a majority of the General Assembly. This effectively meant the end of a Democratic seat in Congress, reduced the clout of the city and many Democrats, including Russ Carnahan, blame Lacy Clay.

“Unfortunately, my friend Congressman Clay really sided with the Republicans,” says Carnahan. “He recruited Democratic votes to override the Governor’s veto—that’s how we got these maps today.”

Carnahan says Clay sold out Democrats and the St. Louis region in order to preserve his seat, which Clay denies. Clay says Carnahan should have challenged Republican Ann Wagner in the new suburban 2nd District.

“Congressman Carnahan did precisely what the Republicans wanted him to do,” says Clay. “To have a bloodbath here in the 1st District, because they knew he didn’t have the spine to run in the new 2nd."

What might have been

Clay and his supporters point out that the 2nd District actually includes 40 percent of Carnahan’s old district anyway, and a candidate with his money and name recognition had a good chance to win.

“Oh, he did have a chance but he would have lost,” says political science professor and former state senator Jeff Smith.  Smith actually ran against Carnahan for U.S. Congress in 2004.

Smith points out that Carnahan support among voters has never been that strong, even among Democrats.

“This is a guy who has always consistently underperformed whether it was primary or general,” Smith says.  “In his first primary he ran against Jeanette Mott Oxford for the state house. I think he outspent her like 20-1, his dad was governor, he had every single endorsement and he won by 64 votes.”

Endorsements and conflicted Democrats

The resulting campaign has been unusually bitter, and at times has left many Democrats conflicted, having to choose between two candidates with essentially similar positions on most issues.

A third candidate, Candice Britton, is also in the race, but many consider Clay to be the front runner, having secured establishment endorsements from Democrats such as Governor Jay Nixon, St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay and St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley. Clay blames Carnahan for unleashing a string of attack ads in a last-ditch effort to win.

“I think my opponent has been very negative,” says Clay. “But that’s indicative of a candidate who has no record to run on, who wants to just throw mud and sling at you.”

Carnahan by contrast picked up an endorsement of the editorial board of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and has accused Clay of not showing up in Washington, and for missing key votes.

“And it’s not just the number of votes, it's critical votes,” says Carnahan.  “These aren’t just votes naming post offices. These are critical votes taking care of 9/11 first responders, about prescription drugs for seniors, alternative budgets to the Ryan budget-cutting plans…he’s missed those the last two years in a row.”

While both candidates say the primary isn’t about race, Congressman Clay hasn’t had to mount a true get-out-the vote campaign in some time.  It remains to be seen if African-American voters will turn out in large numbers to support him, or whether Russ Carnahan can still leverage the old political allegiances in his favor.

  • For more on this year’s campaigns and elections, go to Beyond November, a coordinated election project of St. Louis Public Radio, Nine Network of Public Media and The St. Louis Beacon.

Follow Adam Allington on Twitter:  @aallington