Blunt, Carnahan campaign against the powers that be

Thursday, March 18, 2010

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Rep. Roy Blunt has been in Congress for 13 years, most of them in the Republican leadership. Democratic Secretary of State Robin Carnahan comes from a family with three generations of Washington politicians.

Yet both Blunt and Carnahan are campaigning against the powers that be as they attempt to win Missouri's U.S. Senate seat left open by the retirement of longtime GOP Sen. Kit Bond.

It's a sign of just how unpopular Washington is these days. Senate aspirants across the country are echoing the outsider theme that President Barack Obama himself campaigned on just two years ago. That's particularly true in the 11 states with open Senate seats.

Just 22 percent of Americans -- less than at any previous point in Obama's presidency -- approve of Congress, according to an AP-GfK poll this month. Half say they want to fire their own congressmen. And the frustration is directed at both Republicans and Democrats.

"This is a year when people are very unhappy about the direction of the country. They're very unhappy in particular about the performance of government and of Congress," said Dave Robertson, a political scientist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. "All candidates are going to try to emphasize that they are not part of the problem, but can contribute to the solutions."

Few candidates face a more interesting challenge in this climate than Missouri's Senate contenders.

The Carnahans and Blunts are the state's versions of the Kennedy political dynasty. During the past half-century, members of the two families have served at almost every level of government -- from the local school board to the state Legislature to the Governor's mansion and the U.S. House and Senate.

In the swing state of Missouri, which narrowly went for Republican John McCain over Obama in 2008, Blunt has been running against Obama and the Democratic leadership of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

Carnahan, meanwhile, has been running against a Washington establishment, personified by Blunt, that she decries as mired in partisan gridlock and beholden to special-interest lobbyists and Wall Street executives.

Carnahan didn't even share the stage when President Barack Obama visited Missouri last week -- she had traveled to the nation's capital, saying she needed to push for tougher oversight of Wall Street bankers.

Is she the challenger? "Absolutely," Carnahan said in a recent interview.

Is he the challenger? "I am absolutely in the challenger mode," Blunt said.

Those assertions ring hollow to some prospective voters.

'Big families'

"We look at the Carnahans and Blunts just as big families that have been in politics -- that's part of the problem," said Mike Lee, 48, a plumbing salesman who attended a recent tea party rally in St. Louis. "We just want a change."

In Illinois, Republican Rep. Mark Kirk and Democratic Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias both have presented themselves as outsiders in a race for the Senate seat Obama once held. Kirk, a nine-year veteran of Congress, casts himself as a new face removed from Illinois' Democratic corruption scandals. Giannoulias has played up the fact that he's never served in Washington and tried to tag Kirk as tainted by his years of service there -- even though Giannoulias himself has ties to the White House as a former basketball buddy of the president.

Blunt doesn't dwell on his past tenure as the House Republican whip -- nor his interim role as majority leader, nor his wife's job as a Washington lobbyist -- when traveling the state in an RV emblazoned with the slogan "Jobs for Missouri's future." Instead, Blunt focuses on the Democrats who now control Washington. In stump speeches, he mentions Obama, Pelosi and Reid as much or more often than Carnahan, whom he casts as their rubber stamp.

"The agenda they established from day one in their majority was an extremist agenda, and President Obama, unfortunately, seems pretty comfortable with that extremist agenda," said Blunt, mentioning the Democratic health care and climate change proposals.

Carnahan worked from 1993 to 1996 for the Export-Import Bank of the United States. Her grandfather was a congressman and her mother was appointed a U.S. senator after her father, then-Gov. Mel Carnahan, died in a plane crash while campaigning for Senate in 2000. Her brother, Russ, currently is a Democratic U.S. House member.

Yet Carnahan declared: "Washington feels broken." And she added: "What Congressman Blunt represents is the worst of Washington."

"If you're too big to fail, Washington works for you. If you have a high-powered lobbyist, Washington can work for you. But for the rest of us, we're just having to put up with this recession and try to get through it," she said.

Since the Watergate scandal brought down President Richard Nixon in 1974, it has become common for candidates to campaign against the nation's capital in their quest to get there, said Ross Baker, a political-science professor at Rutgers University.

"What I think is different now is the intensity of it," Baker said.

"There is something paradoxical about it. On one hand, they have something which you would imagine would be an asset, which is experience," Baker said. "But if you claim to have experience, you also are admitting you are part of the problem. So there is this very intricate dance that goes on."

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