Columbia, Missouri

Dennis Hastert, the former House speaker, is gone from Washington and pretty much forgotten. In February, his son lost a bid for his father’s old seat. The last we heard of ex-majority leader Tom DeLay, he was briefly a contestant on the TV show Dancing with the Stars. But former whip Roy Blunt, the third member of the Republican triumvirate that ruled the House of Representatives until 2005, has survived. He’s running for the Senate from Missouri, and more likely than not he’ll win.

Missouri is a swing state, usually reflecting the national political mood. It’s a hodgepodge. “St. Louis is sometimes described as the westernmost eastern city,” Blunt says. “Kansas City is more like Denver. The Boot Heel [southeast Missouri] is like the Delta. Southwest Missouri is more like Oklahoma and even Texas. Northern Missouri is more like the upper Midwest.”

So it’s no surprise the race here epitomizes Senate and House races across the country. Blunt, like Republicans nationwide, has been rejuvenated by the rise of his party’s fortunes and campaigns as an unswerving conservative. Like other Democrats, Robin Carnahan, the Missouri secretary of state, is also running sharply to the right—against Washington, big government, excessive spending—and concentrates on demonizing Blunt.

She’s avoided contact with President Obama. When he came to Missouri in March, Carnahan’s excuse was she had to be in Washington for several fundraisers. She attended his speech in rural Macon in April, but stayed in the crowd and didn’t have her picture taken with him. Obama is scheduled to return in July to raise money for her. She’ll have to attend that event.

Whatever the audience, Carnahan, 48, attacks Blunt. She and Blunt addressed the state VFW convention recently. Carnahan devoted much of her speech to lambasting Blunt. His was entirely on veterans and national security issues. 

Afterwards, reporter David Lieb of the Associated Press buttonholed the candidates, asking their views of the new nuclear arms control agreement with the Russians. Later, he sent this report on Twitter: “In Missouri Senate race, Blunt urges rejection of US-Russia nuclear arms treaty. Carnahan takes no position.”

Blunt aides say Carnahan wants voters to know only three things about her: that she’s from a small town, goes to a Baptist church, and owns a farm. She says Blunt’s 14 years in the House make him a Washington “insider,” while she offers “independent leadership.” Her website boasts Carnahan was selected by “one of the nation’s leading nonpartisan think tanks” as one of 20 government leaders able “to work across party lines to get things done.”

But she’s no stranger to Washington or to partisan, liberal Democratic politics. Her brother, Russ, is a House member. Her mother, Jean, was a U.S. senator. Her father, Mel, was a two-term governor who was killed in a plane crash while campaigning for the Senate in 2000.

If Carnahan is the most famous name in Missouri politics, Blunt is number two. Blunt, 60, was elected secretary of state in 1984, the first Republican to win the post in more than 50 years, and was reelected in 1988. He lost a bid for governor in 1992, but his son Matt was elected governor in 2004, retiring after a single term.

When Republican senator Kit Bond decided he wouldn’t seek reelection this fall, the first person he notified was Roy Blunt. His immediate response, Blunt says, was to tell Bond that he should run again. “He’s the only living guy who’s won seven statewide campaigns,” four for Senate, one for auditor, two for governor. Bond demurred. Six weeks later, in February 2009, Blunt announced he was running for the Senate.

“I knew it had to be done,” he says. “Frankly, I thought I was the only one who could get it done. It’s an important moment for the country that is becoming more obvious to the people every day. We’re making a generational decision about the country.”

In his stump speeches, Blunt asks this question: “Do you want a country where the government is bigger than the people or a country where the people are bigger than the government?” It’s a loaded question, for sure. But it cleverly taps into voters’ legitimate fears about mushrooming government in Washington.

Blunt’s candidacy initially stirred more skepticism than enthusiasm among Republicans. His years as a Republican leader in Washington were seen as a drawback. Republicans lost 30 seats in 2006 (plus control of the House) and another 21 in 2008. It’s now conventional wisdom among conservatives that Republicans had “lost their way,” particularly by spending excessively.

Carnahan is eager to exploit the spending issue. She touts her plan to “stop what’s wrong with Washington [by] cracking down on wasteful spending.” It includes a ban on earmarks and bank bailouts, a presidential line item veto, and spending caps.

Blunt is dismissive of Carnahan on spending. “I don’t think anybody in Missouri believes that Robin Carnahan will spend less money than I will,” he says. Tea party activists and small government conservatives are another story. Blunt hasn’t solidified their support yet, but his speeches are honed to appeal to them. 

He voted for only half the TARP bailout of banks in 2008, and most of that $350 billion has been paid back, he says. And he’s always voted for the budget with the least amount of spending. When he was majority leader for 100 days after DeLay stepped down, he engineered a $40 billion cut in entitlement spending. He also secured funding for 700 miles of fence along the border with Mexico.

“If there were one big thing we could go back and do again,” he told me, “it would be to insist we have fights over spending. We were so focused on the responsibility [to prevent another terrorist attack] that we didn’t have the veto fights.” Had President Bush vetoed “a series” of spending bills, “the Republican party would be in better shape today and so would the country.” Republicans had the votes to sustain vetoes, Blunt says.

So far, Blunt has out-campaigned Carnahan. When he addressed a business group in Columbia recently, it was his 500th campaign event. The next day, he completed his tour of Missouri’s 114 counties and St. Louis. He’s waiting until he and Carnahan go head-to-head after the August primary to air television ads. Liberal groups have spent at least $1.3 million against him, but their TV spots are so over-the-top—in one, the Blunt character drips with oil from his hands and feet—that they appear to have had little effect.

Most analysts of congressional races—Larry Sabato, Nate Silver, Stuart Rothenberg—give Blunt a slight edge over Carnahan, as they should. The doubts among Republicans about Blunt have dissolved. Despite misgivings, the tea party crowd is likely to embrace him. “The reality of the race is that Roy Blunt is the only opportunity to hold on to Kit Bond’s seat,” says conservative talk radio host Mike Ferguson.

Missouri is never an easy state for Republicans. But John McCain narrowly defeated Obama there in 2008, and this year the main issues—the economy, jobs, spending, the deficit, debt—are Republican strengths. “As far as I know, Robin Carnahan and I don’t agree on anything,” Blunt says. “It’s not complicated.”

Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.