Base Motives

It's lonely at the top for Talent and Carnahan

When Jean Carnahan did her Annie Oakley act at a skeet shoot down in Braggadocio the Friday before Labor Day, a good case could be made that she was channeling her inner good ol' gal by bustin' clay with a twenty-gauge shotgun.

Turns out the incumbent Democratic U.S. senator is a pretty good shot, and a recent Post-Dispatch poll suggests her skills may have helped her standing among male voters in a race she's now leading, even though it's still considered a statistical dead heat.

But the Gunsmoke act did cause the National Rifle Association and politicos both Democrat and Republican to throw down on an obvious attempt to appeal to white male voters who live in the small towns and rural areas outside St. Louis and Kansas City.

Mark Poutenis

"That's obvious pandering to the white male constituency, and that's offensive to me," says Alderwoman Sharon Tyus [D-20th Ward], one of more than 20 St. Louis-area African-American elected officials to sign a letter last winter expressing pique about redistricting and warning that it could dampen enthusiasm for Carnahan and other Democratic candidates.

Then came Republican challenger Jim Talent's rather unfortunate fishing foray -- sans the requisite license -- for largemouth bass. Talent's a policy wonk, a supposed ace at the fine print of complex legislation and a man who has milked much money from academia and lobbying, but he didn't know to stop by Roy's Sac N' Bait and plunk down $11 for a resident fishing license.

All of this caused some folks to ask whether Missouri's crucial U.S. Senate race, one of sixteen hotly contested campaigns that will decide whether Democrats will continue to control the nation's upper legislative body, would boil down to goat-ropin' in Rolla or a fiddlin' contest in Branson.

Of course, such you-might-be-a-redneck posturing and ridicule took place at the end of the silly season in politics. Now that the serious season is in high gear, there's a question that remains unanswered by both candidates, one that is particularly troubling for Carnahan's hopes of cranking out a significant turnout of African-American voters here in St. Louis:

Can you turn out your base?

Seems like an elementary issue. But in a campaign season with a marked lack of other hotly contested statewide races -- there's also a shortage of red-hot congressional, state Legislature and city contests -- making sure your unruly camp of voters actually show up and cast ballots in your favor makes the most basic point all the more crucial.

"The top of the ticket in a nonpresidential year always had turnout concerns, and this election is no different," says John Hancock, executive director of the Missouri Republican Party. "To a large extent, this race will be decided by who turns out their base the best."

State Auditor Claire McCaskill faces a relative unknown and convicted felon in Republican challenger Al Hanson -- not exactly a GOP poster child. McCaskill was supposed to play a tag team with Carnahan as an all-woman one-two punch at the top of the Democratic ticket, until the junior senator decided to make a pitch to male voters.

In the St. Louis area, where Talent was a three-term representative from the 2nd Congressional District and Carnahan needs a big turnout from the city's Democratic bastions, including the black vote, there isn't a hot citywide race, and big guns such as U.S. Representatives Dick Gephardt (D-3rd) and Lacy Clay (D-1st) don't face serious challenges.

"If you don't have an opponent, you're not driven to go that extra mile, and there aren't a lot of guys out there who have serious challengers," says one longtime St. Louis-area state legislator. "It's going to take a lot more grunt work to turn out the numbers [Carnahan] needs to win."

In other words, Carnahan and Talent, at the top of their tickets, are slogging through this race by their lonesome, forced to rely on their own money and muscle and the considerable help of their parties instead of the galvanizing help of down-ballot allies. They face negligible opposition from Libertarian Party candidate Tamara Millay and Green Party candidate Daniel Romano, but in the hard math of politics, the only whole numbers in this equation are Jean and Jim.

"There are no coattails, and there's nobody pushing the car," says one prominent city politician. "There not being any downstream races is going to have an impact on that election. The lack of down-ticket races can affect both of these guys."

That could be bad news for Carnahan, who only has to look back to Attorney General Jay Nixon's failed attempt in 1998 to unseat U.S. Senator Christopher "Kit" Bond for proof of what can happen to a white Democrat who pisses off black voters in St. Louis. Nixon angered black voters and pols by pushing to end the city's school-desegregation agreement.

Carnahan hasn't done anything so overt. But resentment of her lingers, in spite of her sunnier poll numbers and two sitdowns called by Clay the Younger to smooth the feathers of black leaders who still want to vent their anger about redistricting at her.

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