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Carnahan, McCaskill, Nixon exhort Democrats to gird up for 2010

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 18, 2009 - Speaker after speaker at Saturday night's Democratic Jefferson-Jackson Dinner offered up the same major point:

-- Getting Secretary of State Robin Carnahan elected to the U.S. Senate won't be a piece of cake.

"Don't think that we won't have to fight like we've never fought before,'' said U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., to the 500-plus Democrats gathered at the Renaissance Grand Hotel for the state party's chief annual fundraising event.

Gov. Jay Nixon acknowledged that point, but did offer some optimism. The governor said he was pleased that there appear to be no major internal Democratic divisions. "Everybody is in this tent. It takes that with challenges we face,'' Nixon said.

He compared Democrats' new political quest to that of a NASCAR driver heading into the 4th turn of the racing oval. Instead of slowing down, the driver speeds up going into the turn to gain speed for the final push for the finish line, Nixon said.

In preparation for 2010, new state party chairman Craig Hosmer, a lawyer from Springfield, Mo., announced that Brian Zuzenak had just been hired as the party's new executive director. Zuzenak had been the campaign manager for former state Rep. Judy Baker, D-Columbia, in her unsuccessful bid last year for Congress against Republican Blaine Luetkemeyer.

McCaskill exhorted party activists to heed the "cautionary tale'' of 1994 to see how complacency can quickly kill their chances at the polls.

In 1992, Missouri Democrats -- led by presidential candidate Bill Clinton and gubernatorial nominee Mel Carnahan -- won all but one statewide contest on the ballot. The sole

Republican survivor was Sen. Christopher "Kit" Bond, R-Mo., who narrowly won re-election.Democrats thought they had it made for decades, McCaskill said.

But two years later, Republican John Ashcroft handily defeated Democrat Alan Wheat for the Missouri seat in the U.S. Senate, a victory that contributed to the GOP nationally taking control of the U.S. House and Senate. State Republicans also gained ground in the state Legislature.

Since then, Missouri Republicans have taken over the Legislature and, for four years until this past January, controlled the governor's mansion.

McCaskill's point: Last November's strong Democratic showing in Missouri (absent the GOP gains in the state Senate) could be setting her party up in 2010 for a '94 replay, if activists aren't careful.

"Don't take this granted,'' McCaskill said, referring to Carnahan's bid.

That said, McCaskill did offer up a few barbs at the only announced Republican Senate candidate, U.S. Rep. Roy Blunt, R-Strafford.

She alluded to his possible primary opponent, former state Treasurer Sarah Steelman, by telling the crowd that if Blunt has GOP opposition, "get some popcorn and coke. It will be a great show."

McCaskill contended that Blunt does indeed have an edge over Carnahan: "He know where all the great restaurants are in Washington...He's an insider's insider in Washington.''

McCaskill portrayed Carnahan as more familiar with "the heart of this state. She knows what makes it beat."

Carnahan offered up one of her longest addresses to date, as she recounted a bit of her family's rural Missouri biography and the issues that she cares most about: education, the economy, health care and new sources of energy.

Education is the key, she said, because the improvements needed to expand jobs, health care and energy "start in the classroom."

Carnahan asked for a show of hands of people who had experienced job loss or work-hour cutbacks, or knew someone who had. She added that she's hearing sad economic stories "where ever I go,'' and decried the poor actions by major financial institutions that she said contributed to the nation's problem\s.

"It doesn't have to be that way. We can do better. We can get better,'' Carnahan said.

She then added, "No matter what anybody says, 'Failure is not an option.' "

Carnahan concluded by praising the party's apparent unified support for her Senate quest.

"Bless your hearts, what you're going to do for me,'' Carnahan said. After urging the audience to eat and drink Saturday, she quipped, "Don't sit too long."

--Editorial note: Yours truly was at the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner this year in a dual role -- to cover the event and to accompany a spouse whose firm was among a number of local companies that had purchased tables of seats. The firm, which shall go unnamed, has contributed to GOP events as well, including some where I also have attended with my spouse in a similar capacity.

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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