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Government, Politics & Issues

In once reliably Democratic 3rd District, GOP challenger Martin is giving Carnahan a race

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 27, 2010 -  In an ordinary election year, U.S. Rep. Russ Carnahan, D-St. Louis, might not find himself in such a fix.

Thanks to 3rd District boundaries set by his Democratic predecessor, the long-powerful Richard A. Gephardt, Carnahan represents a district where close to 60 percent of the voters are deemed reliable Democrats. After a squeaker with his first contest, Carnahan handily won his last two elections by 65 percent or more.

Even during this summer's heavily Republican statewide turnout for the Aug. 3 primary, more Democrats voted in the 3rd District, which spans St. Louis south to Ste. Genevieve, Mo.

But by all accounts, this general election is not shaping up to be typical. Conservative ire is running high -- fed by Tea Party activists who eagerly packed Carnahan's public events last year to make sure that the congressman was aware of their anger over his strong support of most of the national Democratic agenda.

Republican challenger Ed Martin has sought to tap into that unrest, with a campaign that focuses on many of the national issues -- and congressional actions -- where conservatives part ways with Carnahan's votes. As a result, Martin has attracted some national support and visits from such notables as House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio.

Both 3rd District candidates have been launching dueling TV ads for weeks, which began shortly after their two combative debates in late September.

The Washington Post and the National Journal are reporting that Crossroads GPS is slated to begin running TV ads today attacking Carnahan, in a move to help Martin. Crossroads is an independent conservative group co-founded by former Bush advisor Karl Rove.

In any case, the final days largely have found Carnahan and Martin out of the view of TV cameras, as each makes his final campaign push.

Carnahan stopped by the Arnold parade on Sunday, conducted several events in Ste. Genevieve, and has been meeting with small groups at senior centers, neighborhood associations and business organizations.

Martin, a prolific fan of Twitter, regularly Tweets what he's up to. Tuesday, for example, Martin reported "meeting with constituents talking about the issues at Chris' Pancake House and St. Louis Bread Co on Telegraph." He's planning on attending a town hall Wednesday at the Knights of Columbus Hall in Ste. Genevieve.

Opposing Forces -- in Personality and Policy

Other than being lawyers, the two candidates couldn't be more different.

Russ Carnahan

Carnahan, 52, is a member of Missouri's most prominent Democratic family. His grandfather was a congressman. His father is the late Gov. Mel Carnahan, and his mother is former Sen. Jean Carnahan. His sister is Missouri Secretary of State Robin Carnahan, the Democratic nominee for the U.S. Senate.

Carnahan grew up in Rolla, where he became an Eagle Scout before attending the University of Missouri-Columbia for his undergraduate and law degrees. His first bid for office was in 1990, when he ran for Congress in southeast Missouri against the incumbent Republican, Bill Emerson.

Carnahan shares his father's low-key, understated persona, his visible discomfort on the stump -- and his dogged quest for a political career. After getting trounced by Emerson, Carnahan moved to St. Louis, practiced law and continued his behind-the-scenes political involvement. In 2000, Carnahan won election to the state House from the city's 59th District.

In 2004, Carnahan was among 10 Democrats who ran for Congress when Gephardt announced his plans to retire. Carnahan barely won the Democratic primary against a then-political unknown, political science instructor Jeff Smith, who two years later won election to the state Senate.

In the primary with Smith, Carnahan played hardball, filing a complaint with the Federal Election Commission about an anonymous disparaging flier that he suspected had been financed with money from Smith and another Democratic rival. Smith's sworn denial to federal investigators led him to pleading guilty last year to a federal felony charge, stepping down from his state Senate seat and serving time in prison.

After winning the primary, Carnahan then narrowly won that year's general election against Republican Bill Federer, who previously had challenged Gephardt.

Carnahan easily won his 2006 and 2008 contests, and sits on several key House committees: most notably, the Foreign Affairs Committee, where he chairs the Subcommittee on International Organizations, Human Rights and Oversight and sits on the Subcommittee on the Middle East and Central Asia -- posts that have prompted several trips to Afghanistan and the Middle East. He also is a member of the subcommittees on Science and Technology, and Transportation and Infrastructure.

Carnahan has focused a lot of attention on veterans' issues, and took a prominent role in the congressional probe of the scandal over the mishandling of dental instruments at the Cochran Medical Center, which exposed 1,800 veterans to potentially life-threatening illnesses. 

Ed Martin

Martin, 40, is a New Jersey native who moved to St. Louis to attend law school at St. Louis University. A devout Catholic, he previously had spent two years studying in Rome. In an episode that illustrates Martin's gregarious leave-no-opportunity-ignored nature, he met then-Archbishop Justin Rigali, soon became a frequent dinner companion and was hired by the archbishop to head the St. Louis Archdiocese's Human Rights Ofiice.

Martin then clerked for the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, began his own law practice and was a top official in All Children Matter, a group lobbying for school choice. He also became one of the region's best-known lawyers in the anti-abortion movement. He helped represent some pharmacies in Illinois suing then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich over his order mandating that they carry emergency contraception.

By 2005, Martin also was a local conservative radio talk-show host and a newspaper commentator when he was named by then-Gov. Matt Blunt to be the new chairman of the St. Louis Election Board.

Martin oversaw an overhaul of the board's staff, which included firing or reassigning a half-dozen top employees. One of then, then-deputy Republican elections director Jeanne Bergfeld, sued Martin and the board, claiming that she was fired because she was "not Republican enough."

That suit was settled, but Bergfeld filed a new suit last week against Martin over his disparaging comments about her in a Riverfront Times article.

In 2006, Blunt hired Martin as his chief of staff. By late 2007, Martin was out -- following several months of heavy press coverage over his alleged orders that the governor's staff routinely erase all office emails, a violation of state laws governing open records and record preservation.

Martin fired a staff lawyer, Scott Eckersley, who claimed that he was ousted for challenging the email policy. Martin claims the firing was for other reasons. Soon after, Eckersley sued Blunt, Martin and others in a legal fight that cost the state more than $2 million. Eckersley eventually received a $500,000 settlement, an apology letter from the state, and now is running for Congress in southwest Missouri. Martin notes that he was not found guilty of any wrongdoing.

Back in St. Louis, Martin has in the last few years created or led a dizzying array of groups. He briefly was executive director of the Missouri Club for Growth, president of the Missouri Roundtable for Life (an anti-abortion group), and founded Term Limits for Missouri, which called for term limits for several statewide offices -- lieutenant governor, auditor, attorney general and secretary of state -- that currently don't have them. Martin also set up a special website, SaveAB.com, that sought to galvanize opposition to the sale of Anheuser-Busch Cos. Inc. to InBev.

Combative Differences over Political and Personal Issues

What's not in dispute is Martin's energetic campaign style, which has enamored fellow Republicans and concerned some Democrats. At the second debate with Carnahan, for example, Martin got in the habit of immediately lambasting each of the congressman's nuanced answers -- prompting cheers from conservatives in the audience.

For both candidates, their chief focus is Carnahan's record, in particular his support for such measures as:

  • A House measure passed in June 2009 aimed at attacking energy pollution, while promoting cleaner energy sources. Conservatives particularly dislike a provision, killed in the Senate, known as "cap and trade" because it capped certain types of harmful emissions, including those from coal, used heavily in the Midwest. Carnahan says the United States needs to reduce its reliance on foreign oil, especially from the Mideast, and says that China and India will surpass the U.S. in the green-energy industry if the nation fails to act.
  • The new federal health-reform law, including a 2014 mandate that all Americans buy health insurance. Opponents contend that reform is too costly and imposes unfair restrictions on individuals. Martin emphasizes the planned $500 billion trim in the growth of Medicare, asserting it will hurt the elderly. Carnahan praises the provisions that allow young people to remain on their parents' plan until they are 26, that bar insurance companies from denying coverage to children because of pre-existing conditions and that require insurers spend at least 85 percent of premiums on coverage.
  • The congressional $800-billion stimulus measure to address the economic downturn with aid to the states for operations and public works projects, coupled with tax cuts. Martin contends the stimulus didn't work and calls for ending the spending. Carnahan says the stimulus has saved millions of jobs and prevented the United States from falling into a full-fledged Depression.

Carnahan has been among the Democratic members of Congress most upfront in defending his votes. Martin, a local lawyer, has been among the most aggressive Republican opponents in attacking Carnahan's record.
That dynamic set the tone for two combative debates late last month, in which both men went on the attack, and for the ad campaigns that have followed.

Carnahan accuses Martin of seeking to privatize Social Security, an assertion Martin denies, and also blasts Martin's support of extending all the Bush era tax cuts. Carnahan wants to end the cuts for individuals earning more than $200,000 and couples with income above $250,000.

Carnahan also has gone personal -- attacking Martin's role in the Blunt email controvery and asserting that Martin's positions on energy may be influenced by the fact that Martin and his wife own more than $100,000 in oil-company stocks. Martin says his wife inherited the stocks, and angrily denies any link.

Meanwhile, Martin continues to attack Carnahan and the stimulus measure by citing the $107 million in federal alternative-energy tax credits that recently went to a central-Missouri windmill farm co-owned by the congressman's brother, Tom Carnahan. The congressman says he played no role in the awarding of the grant, a position backed up by the U.S. Treasury Department overseeing the program. The award was among the largest going to more than 1,000 alternative-energy companies.

Martin also has attacked the foreign trips that Carnahan has taken as a member of Congress and a cabin cruiser co-owned by Carnahan and moored at a marina in Alton.

Within the past week, another controversy appears to have caught both candidates off-guard. An opposition-research investigator from New Mexico, who worked for Carnahan earlier this year, has set up an attack website that accuses Martin of failing to take adequate action to address the problem of pedophile priests during his tenure on the Curia, the St. Louis Archdiocese's governing board.

Martin denies having any role in dealing with errant priests and has accused Carnahan of improperly using the New Mexico investigator as a cover to launch an attack that Martin calls anti-Catholic. Carnahan's staff deny any involvement in the website.

With so many unusual twists turns in this contest, both campaigns are viewing the final days with optimism and caution.

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