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Commentary Detail

Carnahan's Conundrum
Commentary by: Jason Rosenbaum
Aired April 13, 2011

If Missouri politicians had theme songs, what tune would accompany U.S. Rep. Russ Carnahan? Would it be “Don’t Fear the Reaper” by Blue Oyster Cult? “Hit the Road Jack” by Percy Mayfield? How about Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger?”

Perhaps Carnahan’s detractors would choose the first two songs, especially since Missouri must give up a congressional seat for the 2012 election cycle. With a population decline in St. Louis City and a robust Republican legislature, many assumed Carnahan’s days as a federal lawmaker were numbered last year when Missouri lost a congressional seat.

For instance, Isaac Wood, who analyzes U.S. House races for political scientist Larry Sabato, said Carnahan was one of the most vulnerable lawmakers in the country even before the first redistricting maps were released. He said it was likely Carnahan would be forced to run against another congressman, either Republican Todd Akin or Democrat Lacy Clay.

That prediction seemed to come true when House and Senate committees revealed redistricted maps with St. Louis City encased in a single congressional district. Even a Democratic alternative kept St. Louis City in one district.
If Carnahan ran where he currently lives, he would have to go up against Clay in a Democratic primary. And if he ran against Akin, he would be battling in a district that could lean Republican.

Both Carnahan and Clay blasted the House proposal, saying in a joint statement the map “emphasizes partisanship over fairness.” Yet with big majorities in the House and Senate, Republicans may have enough votes to get their preferred map through the legislature.

But all might not be lost for Carnahan, who’s experienced his share of harrowing electoral ring work. For one thing, Gov. Jay Nixon can veto any map that the GOP-dominated General Assembly passes, and House Republicans will be four votes short of having a supermajority. He told reporter Charles Jaco in February that the state is clearly split between the parties and it would be difficult to draw a 25 percent Democratic map without “stretching” the lines.

Judging from those words, a map that effectively takes Carnahan out of the congressional equation will not be viewed kindly by the governor. Unless Republicans can find at least four House Democrats to switch and make sure their members vote affirmatively, the GOP may have to temper their expectations.

Also worth considering: Carnahan may have a fighting chance of winning if he decides to run in the reconfigured 2nd District. While the House map features Republican strongholds of western St. Louis County and portions of St. Charles County, it also includes some Democratic-leaning municipalities throughout St. Louis County. The Associated Press noted earlier this month that Akin’s new district would be more competitive for Democrats than the current configuration.

Competitiveness may not be a bad thing. On the cynical side of things, a competitive seat would feed consultants of both parties for a few election cycles and give hope to a slew of St. Louis area wannabe congressmen. From a more good-government perspective, congressional districts with a more even partisan divide could organically force lawmakers to be less ideological and more attune to their districts.

Regardless, Carnahan’s future is at a crossroads. His path depends partly on a legislature that wants him to disappear. But it also depends on his political skill to survive.

(The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of St. Louis Public Radio.)

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Jason Rosenbaum

Jason Rosenbaum


Jason Rosenbaum is a freelance journalist. He covered state politics in Jefferson City for Missouri Lawyers Media, the St. Louis Beacon, the Columbia Business Times and the Columbia Tribune. He also is a regular commentator for KBIA, an NPR affiliate based in Columbia.

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