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Turbulent week roils Missouri's field in the U.S. Senate -- incumbents as well as contenders

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 25, 2010 - Missouri's contest this year for the soon-to-be vacant U.S. Senate seat now occupied by U.S. Sen. Christopher "Kit" Bond, R-Mo., has ramped up quickly, thanks to a week filled with new developments -- including a new poll, a new photograph and a new Supreme Court decision -- that could signal changes in campaign momentum, messages and money.

And even Missouri's two incumbents in the U.S. Senate -- retiring Republican Bond and Democrat Claire McCaskill -- appeared to have gotten caught up in the potential fallout.

The only question now is whether this coming week will be anywhere near as eventful.

The biggest reason for all turmoil: Last Tuesday's Republican U.S. Senate victory in Massachusetts, which until a couple weeks ago was considered a Democratic haven and a sure thing for the Democratic nominee, state Attorney General Martha Coakley. Instead, she lost to state Sen. Scott Brown.

Although that election was hundreds of miles away, the results appear to be causing quite a few ripples in the Show-Me State. Every other political event, even those seemingly unrelated, haven taken on a Massachusetts tinge.

McCaskill, for example, has issued several releases in the days since the Massachusetts vote in which she has emphasized her ongoing quest to curb government spending and bring down the federal deficit -- concerns that, according to post-election polls, are shared by voters in Massachusetts and across the country. (President Barack Obama appears to have jumped aboard the cut-spending bandwagon over the weekend.)

UPDATE: On Monday, McCaskill announced that she has joined two Republicans -- fellow Sens. Jeff Sessions, R-Al., and Jon Kyl, R-Ariz. -- in cosponsoring a measure that would restrict federal spending over the next four years. 

Bond, meanwhile, has issued feisty statements jabbing the Obama's administration on several fronts, notably terrorism -- again, a topic that Republicans believe helped Brown in Massachusetts (he had blasted the Obama's administration approach) and could help other GOP candidates in November.

As for the Missouri Senate race, the Massachusetts election came just before the release of a new independent Rasmussen poll in Missouri that indicated the best-known Republican seeking to succeed Bond -- U.S. Rep. Roy Blunt of Springfield, Mo. -- may have succeeded in blunting (yes, we know, but it's Monday) the effect of a late-2009 barrage of attack TV ads from groups supporting the only announced Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate, Missouri Secretary of State Robin Carnahan.

The latest poll gave Blunt a six-percentage point edge, compared to earlier Rasmussen polls -- the latest in December -- that showed the two were tied, or Carnahan had a slight lead.

All the numbers, including the latest, are within Rasmussen's margin of error. It's unclear if the demographics were the same in all the polls. And there's the ongoing contention that Rassmussen polls traditionally favor Republicans, and the continued controversy over Rasmussen's reliance on automated calls, where the listener punches in an answer, rather than listen to live questioners.

(Polling experts say automated polls tend to be less accurate; Rasmussen cites its polling record in Missouri, where its polls closest to the state's elections in recent years have generally been pretty close to the final tallies.)

In any case, some activists in both camps privately agree that the poll appears to document at least a slight public swing toward Blunt.

Missouri Democrats swiftly countered with the release of a photo of Blunt and his current wife, lobbyist Abigail Blunt, that shows them at a 2008 party with the now-infamous Tareq and Michaele Salahi, the Virginia couple accused of crashing a White House state dinner last fall.

The Democratic aim: to show the Blunts as part of the partying Washington elite, and the congressman as a well-connected insider, out of step with common folk in Missouri.

UPDATE: And today, the St. Louis Democratic Party (which has close ties to Carnahan and her brother, U.S. Rep. Russ Carnahan, D-St. Louis) announced the launch of a new web site -- bluntandabramoff.com -- that shows the congressman sharing the same hat with convicted Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

City Democratic Party chairman Brian Wahby said it's not unusual for the city party to get active in congressional or presidential contests. "Why not?" asked Wahby.

The Blunt/Abramoff site is intended to document that "Roy Blunt is one of the biggest corporate insiders in Washington,'' Wahby said. "That's precisely what is wrong with Wall Street."

The state GOP  set up an attack web site months ago that attempts to link Carnahan with ACORN, the low-income advocacy group that has come under fire for some misdeeds involving its employees or volunteers.

Now, the state Republican Party is adopting a new tack by tagging Robin Carnahan as the next Coakley, and referring to her as Robin "Coakley" Carnahan. Democrats countered that Blunt's no Brown.

Then came Thursday's U.S. Supreme Court decision that allows corporations to pay directly for political advertising, overturning a 1990 high-court ruling that declared Congress could impose curbs on corporations' political spending. The ruling is assumed to apply as well to unions and special-interest groups.

Thursday's court decision also tossed out a more-recent restriction that barred independent parties from running advocacy ads within 60 days of an election.

All sides agree the ruling could pave the way for huge amounts of spending in the Missouri's Senate contest, seen by both parties and analysts as one of a handful of true toss-up Senate races this year.

For that reason, it's not surprising that both Senate candidates swiftly declared their views about the court's decision: Blunt lauded it and Carnahan lamented it. Their respective political parties then weighed in with jabs at the rival candidate.

The barrage of responses marked one of the first times that both candidates were quick to go public with their opinions, a signal that more such airings are likely to follow from now on.

But last week also saw Blunt confront a potential bump in his path to the Republican nomination, with the re-emergence of announced GOP rival, state Sen. Chuck Purgason, R-Caulfield. Purgason sought to remind fellow conservatives of his opposition to big government (by sharply criticizing Wednesday's State of the State address by Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat), an act that may have contributed to Friday's announcement that Purgason had won the support of state Rep. Rob Schaaf, R-St. Joseph.

Blunt has amassed far GOP endorsements, and ignored Purgason's missives. But Democrats were quick to pounce on Purgason's activity as a hoped-for sign of GOP disarray.

In any case, the big question now is whether last week was simply an anomaly in the Senate contest, which officially won't get underway until filing begins in a month -- or the new normal until Nov. 2.

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.

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