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Government, Politics & Issues

For both GOP and Democrats, suburbs - especially St. Louis County - are key political battleground

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 19, 2010 - To underscore the political power of St. Louis' suburbs, consider this: Missouri's Republican and Democratic candidates for the U.S. Senate both chose to locate their campaign headquarters in St. Louis County -- the state's largest bloc of votes.

But arguably stronger evidence of suburban clout hangs on the wall of GOP Senate nominee Roy Blunt's campaign headquarters in suburban Sunset Hills.

A huge handwritten chart documents how many volunteer calls have been made to potential supporters in each of St. Louis County's 28 townships -- particularly the GOP-leaning ones, such as Bonhomme and Queeny. Tens of thousands of calls already have been made, and more are expected to follow in the remaining three weeks.

The state Republican aim goes beyond helping Blunt.

In St. Louis County, in particular, the Senate contest is linked to the region's two other hot races: the St. Louis County Executive fight between Democratic incumbent Charlie Dooley and Republican Bill Corrigan, and the 3rd District congressional battle between Republican Ed Martin and Democratic incumbent Russ Carnahan.

Democrats see a strong showing for Dooley, particularly among African-American voters, as also helping the siblings Robin and Russ Carnahan. Republicans hope that county Tea Party support for Martin, for example, will help Blunt and Corrigan.

Republican consultant John Hancock, who works for Blunt and other candidates, contends that the suburban voters have been largely responsible for the national GOP swing over the past year.

To some, the national talk of "independent voters" is code for "the suburbs" because a higher percentage of suburban voters tend to classify themselves as independents.

Urban areas, such as St. Louis and Kansas City, are overwhelmingly Democratic. Rural voters, at least in Missouri, tend to favor Republicans. The swing suburbs tend to break the political tie.

Hancock points to the victorious GOP candidates for governor last year in Virginia and New Jersey, who experts say won largely because of the shift of their states' suburbs away from the Democrats.

The suburbs' political shift "may be one of the things happening this year," Hancock said. He added that a national realignment of suburban voters would mark the biggest change in electoral politics since 1992 -- when Democrat Bill Clinton snagged the suburbs for his party.

St. Louis County is the State's Biggest Electoral Prize

Such a political swing is definitely what Missouri Republicans are hoping for in St. Louis County, which was deemed GOP-leaning turf until 1990. That year, Democrat George R. "Buzz" Westfall won a tight race for county executive -- leading a Democratic wave that has controlled the county and influenced its voters ever since.

St. Louis County is, by far, Missouri's largest bloc of votes, accounting for at least 20 percent of the state's overall vote in a typical election. If county voters overwhelmingly prefer a particular candidate, that county preference can make the difference in a close contest.

In 2006, for example, the county provided the statewide edge for Democrat Claire McCaskill in her successful bid to unseat then-Sen. Jim Talent, R-Mo., who amassed large margins in rural Missouri.

In 2008, St. Louis County's Democratic bent was so strong that it provided almost a quarter of the votes that Democrat Barack Obama collected in Missouri in his successful national bid for the White House. (Add in the Democratic city of St. Louis, and one-third of Obama's vote came from just the city and county.)

Republican rival John McCain narrowly carried the state -- but St. Louis County had little to do with it, providing only 15 percent of his statewide vote. Still, McCain's overall success didn't trickle down. The lack of St. Louis County support for statewide Missouri Republicans helped kill the chances for all but one member of the party's ticket.

The 2008 Democratic beneficiaries included Missouri Secretary of State Robin Carnahan, a Democrat who collected more votes than any other statewide candidate in either party -- in Missouri and in St. Louis County.

State Democratic Party spokesman Ryan Hobart said his party has field staff and offices all over St. Louis County. "It's a strong Democratic area, and we're working to keep it that way," Hobart said.

The Democrats are getting help from labor groups, who have regularly been conducting weekend door-to-door canvasses across the county.

Republicans are heartened by reports of heavier-than-usual absentee voting in St. Louis and St. Charles County, which the GOP believes is a signal that its supporters are turning out. The early voters in St. Louis County include a higher-than-usual percentage of older voters, election officials say.
 
Ken Warren, a St. Louis University political science professor and a pollster, says that both parties' focus on St. Louis County reflects a basic truth: Robin Carnahan needs to snag at least 56 percent of St. Louis County's votes on Nov. 2 -- and preferably more -- while Blunt is seeking to minimize his losses.
"Essentially, in St. Louis County, a Republican just can't afford to lose big,'' Warren said. And a Democrat needs to win big.

Behind all the talk of numbers are real voters like Craig Workman and Carmel Calsyn.

Workman, 55, is a small businessman in Crystal Lake Park. A Republican, he plans to vote for Blunt. Workman praises Blunt's 14 years of experience in Congress, observing that the congressman's experience may be a minus to his critics, but Workman sees it as a plus -- especially for the Senate.

For Workman, a key issue is health care and how much the federal changes may cost his company.

Calsyn, 63, is a Democrat. She supports Carnahan, but added that a key reason is her dislike of Blunt. Calsyn says she's been influenced, somewhat, by the negative ads she's seen about Blunt.

Calsyn's key issues include education and jobs. She's out of work and hopes to find a job in the education field.

Calsyn and Workman also split the same when it comes to county executive: Workman backs Corrigan and Calsyn prefers Dooley.

St. Charles County Also a Key Political Battleground

Fast-growing St. Charles County has become the region's second-largest political prize, with its vote tallies now larger than those in St. Louis.

The political portrait, though, is the reverse. St. Charles County is seen as reliably Republican territory, so much so that it often attracts Republican presidential visits. President George W. Bush made several stops in the county during his eight years in office, including one on the eve of the 2002 U.S. Senate contest that saw Talent edge out then-incumbent Sen. Jean Carnahan, D-Mo., the mother of Robin Carnahan.

Warren says that Robin Carnahan's job this time is not to lose too badly in St. Charles County. That helps explain why she was going door-to-door recently in St. Peters, stopping by households deemed to have Democratic-leaning voters.

St. Peters Alderman Tommy Roberts, a fellow Democrat, is optimistic that Carnahan will do better than expected. Democrats hope that Carnahan -- who carried the county in 2008 against a weak Republican opponent -- can fare as well in St. Charles County as McCaskill did in 2006. Talent carried St. Charles County, but McCaskill collected 44 percent of the vote -- strong enough to help her statewide effort.

Republicans say they're working hard in St. Charles County to make sure that Blunt gets a larger share of the vote, and that Carnahan wins less.

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