In The Missouri Senate Race, Who's The Insider?

Correction Oct. 12, 2010

In early on-air versions, we said GOP Senate candidate Roy Blunt had once been the governor of Missouri. He was not; he ran once and lost in the primary. It was Blunt’s son, Matt, who was once Missouri’s governor.

After four terms in the Senate, Missouri Republican Christopher Bond is retiring. For Democrats, it could be a rare chance to pick up a seat. But the mood in the country is decidedly anti-politician, and Democratic Senate candidate Robin Carnahan hails from one of Missouri's best-known political families. At the same time, her Republican rival, Roy Blunt, has been a member of the House for 14 years.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

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And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

Democrats are mostly playing defense in this tough election for the party in power - mostly, but not quite always. The party has a chance to pick up a seat in the state where we travel next. Republican Senator Christopher Bond is retiring in Missouri. That creates an opening for the candidate who can appeal to an electorate angry at incumbents. So it's ironic that Missouri voters dont exactly have an outsider among the major-party candidates. The Democratic candidate for Senate, Robin Carnahan, comes from a political dynasty, and the Republican is one of the state's most prominent political figures.

NPR's David Welna reports.

DAVID WELNA: Congressman Roy Blunt was on his home turf the other day, leading a rally at the GOP headquarters in Springfield, Missouri. His message: Democrats in Washington cannot be trusted.

Representative ROY BLUNT (Republican, Missouri): You've got a government who one, doesnt care what you think and two, the reason they dont care what you think is they dont think we're smart enough to have an opinion. And Missourians are fed up with it.

WELNA: Which seems to say Missourians are not fed up with Roy Blunt. After all, he's been their secretary of state and a seven-term congressman. But he's also taken more money from lobbyists than any other member of the House. He's married to a lobbyist, and his sons are lobbyists.

Later, Blunt bridles when I ask whether he's a Washington insider.

Rep. BLUNT: You know, youre going to have to figure it out. I just dont think Robin Carnahan is a person who can say, we need somebody new - and that's me. You know, I'm the first person in my family to ever graduate from college. My mom and dad were dairy farmers. If you think that's an establishment candidate, I think youre just not thinking through this the way Missourians

WELNA: Missouri State political scientist George Connor calls Blunt the ultimate Washington insider. But that matters far less, he says, than Blunt's ability to stoke resentment toward Democrats in a swing state that two years ago, chose John McCain over Barack Obama.

Professor GEORGE CONNOR (Missouri State University): We have become more conservative in the last two years, in response to what theyve seen in Washington, D.C. - the health-care reforms that we dont like, the bailouts that we dont like. And so I think nothing that's happened in Washington has helped the Democrats here in Missouri.

WELNA: Last week, Blunt unveiled a new TV ad. It seeks to tie Carnahan to the stimulus package championed by President Obama, which also gave Carnahan's brother $107 million for a wind farm in Missouri.

(Soundbite of ad)

Unidentified Man #1: They promised jobs. Instead, we got generations of debt. Where did our money go?

Unidentified Woman#1: Ask Robin Carnahan. Her brother's wind farm got over 100 million stimulus dollars.

Unidentified Man #1: How? Robin Carnahan campaigned for Obama and the stimulus.

WELNA: Carnahan herself flatly rejects the suggestion her brother got a big grant because she, as Missouri's secretary of state, backed the stimulus. In an interview, she says Blunt's tried making this race about President Obama, who is deeply unpopular in Missouri. She insists its about whom people can trust as their next senator.

Ms. ROBIN CARNAHAN (Missouri Secretary of State): So this race is really about whether there's going to be someone who ultimately, is able to speak for them, or somebody who's been in Washington - like congressman Blunt, for 14 years - and who has just gotten too cozy with the business as usual out there, and is too tied in with the lobbyists and special interests, I think, to really look out for us.

WELNA: Carnahan has tried driving that message home in a series of negative ads, including this country-western ditty.

(Soundbite of ad)

Unidentified Man #2: (Singing) The way to spell corruption is B-L-U-N-T. Roy Blunt is the very worst of Washington, D.C.

Ms. CARNAHAN: I'm Robin Carnahan. I'm running for the Senate, and I approved this message.

WELNA: That message might work better, says University of Missouri campaign expert Elizabeth Miller, had Carnahan not had a father who was governor, a mother who's been a senator, and another brother who's a congressman.

Professor ELIZABETH MILLER (University of Missouri): Because Carnahan is part of this - sort of political dynasty, so to speak, in Missouri, she doesnt have the ability to use Roy Blunt's Washington insider characteristic against him.

Unidentified Man #3: What can I help you with, young lady?

Unidentified Woman #2: I'd like a sliced pork sandwich.

WELNA: At Arthur Bryant's barbecue in Kansas City, the line for smoked-meat sandwiches stretches out the door. While waiting, engineer Steven Folts(ph) says he voted for President Obama two years ago but this time, Roy Blunt may get his vote.

Mr. STEVEN FOLTS (Engineer): Ms. Carnahan is just kind of riding on the coattails, and I dont think she really deserves to be there.

WELNA: And what about Roy Blunt? He's been in Washington.

Mr. FOLTS: Yeah.

WELNA: Is that a plus or a minus for you?

Mr. FOLTS: Probably a minus, but I think he's kind of the lesser of two evils here.

WELNA: And 84-year-old Ruth Watts, who's a Republican, may not vote at all.

Ms. RUTH WATTS: I'm so sick and tired of those ads. I really dont want to vote for either one, almost.

(Soundbite of laughter)

WELNA: Blunt has been leading in the polls. In the end, this Senate race may come down to whether an establishment Democrat is even less appealing this year than an establishment Republican.

David Welna, NPR News.

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