ST. LOUIS • U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay successfully defended a family political legacy on Tuesday. U.S. Rep. Russ Carnahan may have ended one.
Barring an unlikely November surprise, Clay will become St. Louis' sole congressman next year after easily beating Carnahan in Tuesday's hotly contested Democratic primary for the new 1st Congressional District.
"Let me thank St. Louis and this region first for coming together and trusting in my leadership," Clay told an enthusiastic crowd at the St. Louis Gateway Classic Sports Foundation on the near north side, as his father and congressional predecessor, Bill Clay Sr., looked on. Also on hand was Mayor Francis Slay, one of Clay's earliest backers.
Clay later said of the acrimonious race that divided a party: "You know what? It's over. It's water under the bridge."
A short way south, at the Dubliner pub downtown, Carnahan arrived just before 10 p.m. to a roomful of somber supporters, including his mother, former U.S. Sen. Jean Carnahan. He ordered a pint of Guinness before conceding about 10:15 p.m.
"This new First District, it belongs to the people. They deserved a debate," said Carnahan, son of the late Gov. Mel Carnahan. "The people have decided. I respect that decision."
Republican Robyn Hamlin won the GOP nomination to face Clay on Nov. 6, in what will almost certainly be a perfunctory general election. With St. Louis' overwhelmingly Democratic base, Clay's primary win is effectively a return ticket to Washington.
In the neighboring 2nd Congressional District, former Missouri Republican Party Chair Ann Wagner of Ballwin easily beat three challengers to win the GOP nomination, as expected. Harold Whitefield and Glenn Koenen were virtually tied among four candidates for the Democratic nomination in the heavily Republican district.
The 2nd is Missouri's only open congressional seat this year, with incumbent Republican U.S. Rep. Todd Akin running for the U.S. Senate this year instead of running for re-election.
The 1st District primary ended the showdown between two fellow congressmen who for years have jointly represented St. Louis as liberal Democratic allies. They were forced into battle this year for the city's one remaining congressional seat by a Republican-drawn redistricting map.
The campaign encompassed allegations of treachery with shades of race. Clay is black, and he argued that a loss of his seat would set back African-American progress. Carnahan is white, and he insisted he would nonetheless represent St. Louis' "minority majority" better than Clay.
At stake weren't just the candidates' futures, but their pasts.
Clay's father, Clay Sr., was instrumental in creating a majority-black district in north St. Louis in the late 1960s, which he then held for three decades before his son took it over in 2001.
Carnahan's family roots run throughout Missouri politics: His father was killed in a plane crash in 2000 while campaigning for the U.S. Senate; his mother took that Senate seat; his sister Robin Carnahan was later elected as Missouri secretary of state.
Tuesday's primary loss appears to be the end of the Carnahan political line — though the candidate's mother, Jean, didn't accept that assessment after his concession speech. "This is not a period," the former senator said. "This is a comma."
Despite the insistence of both candidates that race didn't matter, both tipped their hands at various times in the campaign to indicate that it did.
Clay told the Post-Dispatch in July that if he lost, it would be such a blow to the black community that it could hurt U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill and other white Democrats in November.
"I think there will be dropoff" in black voting in November, Clay said. "For the black community, they would probably go in and vote for Obama and walk out. It would be viewed as setting back the black community, for sure."
Carnahan had countered that Clay's alleged loyalty to the rent-to-own industry hurt minority constituents, who tend to be targeted by so-called predatory lenders.
Race also appeared to be an issue for many voters and supporters of the candidates.
"It shouldn't be, but unfortunately it is because of where the seat is located," said the Rev. E.G. Shields Sr., former president of the St. Louis Metropolitan Clergy Coalition, who attended Clay's election night gathering. Since the district is predominantly African-American, he said, there is a sense of "if we've got it, let's try to keep it."
At Carnahan's election night gathering at the Dubliner, one of the few black participants was Kenneth Jones, a former city alderman. He expressed aggravation at what he said was Clay's exploitation of St. Louis' "historic racial divide." "That's not what we need to move the working class forward," he said.
Jesse Bogan and Doug Moore of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.