Carnahan public legacy to end in January?

2012-08-10T00:15:00Z 2012-08-11T16:29:15Z Carnahan public legacy to end in January?BY VIRGINIA YOUNG • vyoung@post-dispatch.com > 573-635-6178 stltoday.com

JEFFERSON CITY • Carnahans have been on the ballot in Missouri for three generations, holding various state and federal posts for the better part of the last 68 years.

But the Democratic family's name won't adorn any public office next year, thanks to Rep. Russ Carnahan's defeat Tuesday in the 1st Congressional District primary in St. Louis and Robin Carnahan's decision not to seek re-election as Missouri's secretary of state. Both will leave office in January.

Given the state's increasingly Republican leanings and the thrashings the siblings have taken at the polls recently — Robin Carnahan lost the U.S. Senate race to Republican Roy Blunt in 2010 — is the family tradition nearing an end?

Though the Carnahans demur, others say the answer is yes, at least for the foreseeable future.

"It's difficult to see how you would resurrect yourself from the back-to-back defeat of Robin Carnahan by such a sizable margin and the defeat of Russ Carnahan by an even more sizable margin," said Terry Jones, a political science professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

Even if the Carnahans tried again, other Democratic candidates would be unlikely to defer to them and could consider it time for a new face, Jones added.

The Carnahans themselves don't rule out a comeback.

They note that the late Gov. Mel Carnahan, father of Robin and Russ, lost races for the state Senate in 1966 and governor in 1984 before winning the lieutenant governor's office in 1988 and the governorship in 1992.

Recalling his father's ups and downs, Russ Carnahan, 54, said in an interview Wednesday that "if you have a commitment to giving back to your community, I think you have a long view of how you do that."

Carnahan, who was trounced 63 percent to 34 percent by Rep. William Lacy Clay on Tuesday, also repeated what he told his supporters after the election's results were known: "For the rest, I'll say, 'Stay tuned,' " he said.

Robin Carnahan, 51, has been mum about her plans after January. She said in an interview this week that while she opted to leave the secretary of state's office, "I'm young and Russ is young, so I don't count this as an absolute end."

Their political genes came from their father; their mother, Jean Carnahan, who was appointed to the U.S. Senate after her husband was elected posthumously; and their grandfather, A.S. J. Carnahan, who served in Congress from 1945-1946 and 1949-1960.

The legacy was underscored by tragedy.

Mel Carnahan hoped to cap his public service by winning a seat in the U.S. Senate. But on a campaign trip in October 2000, his plane, piloted by another son, Roger "Randy" Carnahan, crashed in Jefferson County, killing both of them and campaign adviser Chris Sifford.

At her father's funeral, Robin told how, when she was a little girl, her father used to get a fire going in the fireplace in the mornings before he would leave for the day. He would tell her, "Don't let the fire go out."

"Dad, we promise we won't let the fire go out," she said at his funeral.

A month after his father died, Russ won a seat in the Missouri House representing a south St. Louis district. Robin, who is often characterized as the most hard-nosed and driven of the four Carnahan children, vaulted into statewide politics four years later. (The fourth sibling, Tom Carnahan, has not sought elective office.)

A lawyer, Robin campaigned for secretary of state in 2004 on a promise to change the tone in Jefferson City away from bitter partisanship.

While the theme resonated, it was the Carnahan name that made her hard to beat. Her opponent, Republican House Speaker Catherine Hanaway, said after the election that "Carnahan" had twice as much name recognition as "Hanaway" did.

Robin Carnahan easily won a second term in 2008. Secretary of state is often used as a steppingstone to higher office, so no one was surprised when she almost immediately began planning a run for the U.S. Senate seat held by the retiring Republican Sen. Christopher "Kit" Bond.

But she was soundly beaten by Blunt in the Republican tidal wave of November 2010.

Since then, 'she's been pretty disengaged, from the political side of it," said Rep. Chris Kelly, D-Columbia. "She liked the government side more than the political side of it."

Asked this week if the 2010 loss dimmed her political ambition, Robin said brusquely: "Typically, after you go through big races and beg all your friends for money and raise $10 million or $12 million, you do take a breather."

She said she decided to leave when her term ends because, "It was time for me to take a look at some other opportunities."

In the meantime, she is focusing on what went wrong with a new computer application her office used on election night. It crashed when too many users overwhelmed the election results maps.

"You have to constantly upgrade technology, and this was an attempt at improvement that the vendors were trying to make," she said. "It's eventually going to be a better system, but they didn't get it" right on Tuesday.

Russ, meanwhile, was gearing up to move his youngest son, Andrew, 18, into a Mizzou dorm in Columbia. His older son, Austin, 22, attends college in Kirksville, Mo.

Russ said he didn't know whether either son would continue the family business of seeking elective office.

Russ would have to do some fence-mending with African-American leaders if he got back into politics. Clay and his supporters were angry that Carnahan fought to oust the city's black congressman instead of running in a new, Republican-leaning St. Louis County district. They also disliked Carnahan's use of negative ads against a party colleague.

"It leaves a bad taste in people's mouth," said Normandy Mayor Patrick Green, who attended Clay's election night gathering. "Russ has a good reputation. This made some people turn their head away. That's unfortunate because Russ was a good Democrat."

Those wounds are fresh but they're not permanent, said St. Louis attorney Brad Ketcher, who served in Mel Carnahan's administration and is a longtime family friend.

"Those things can heal up," Ketcher said. "I think the Carnahan name still means something."

It could take time to see what it means.

"I don't want to say the Carnahans are done, finished," said George Connor, a political scientist at Missouri State University in Springfield. "But it does seem like we won't see a Carnahan on the state stage for some time."

Jesse Bogan of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.

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