U.S. Russ Carnahan and U.S. Rep. Wm. Lacy Clay with Loop developer Joe Edwards during less contentious times

This morning, the Missouri Supreme Court will take up a taxpayer lawsuit that challenges the constitutionality of Missouri’s new congressional districts. The only Carnahan named in this suit is Robin Carnahan – as Missouri’s Secretary of State, she is the state’s top election official and is named, as such, as a defendant. However, everyone knows that her brother, U.S. Rep. Russ Carnahan, is the driving force behind this suit, the plaintiff in effect if not in fact.

The suit is motivated by the fact that, after 2010 Census findings, the new congressional map for Missouri drew Carnahan’s 3rd Congressional District out of existence. Most Democrats – and The St. Louis American, in an editorial – argued that the Missouri side of the St. Louis metropolitan area still has enough population, despite losses, to draw three congressional districts here, two of which would be safely Democratic. The Republican-dominated state Legislature, however, drew the map differently, putting the city of St. Louis entirely into the 1st CD along with a chunk of North County. The 3rd CD is now what Carnahan derisively calls a “tea party district,” with slivers of Jefferson and St. Charles counties and then lots of Republican red zone moving west.

As expected, Gov. Jay Nixon vetoed this map, which eliminates Carnahan’s district (long held by Democratic legend U.S. Rep. Dick Gephardt before him) and leaves a likely 6-2 Republican majority in Missouri’s congressional delegation. As Democrats and The American argued, statewide voter results are not anywhere as lopsided as a 6-2 margin suggests. Republicans in the state Legislature attempted to override Nixon’s veto, and they succeeded – with critical support from African-American Democratic legislators from both sides of the state.

Carnahan continues to raise funds and advocate for this lawsuit. The suit makes reference to a provision in the Missouri Constitution that legislative districts must be compact and contiguous. (Legally speaking, the partisan nature of the new map is beside the point – if Republicans can generate sufficient political support to get a partisan map through the legislative process, as they did, it’s legal.) The suit includes as an attachment an alternative map where the districts look more compact and contiguous, but that map is a pure legal fantasy. If the Supreme Court upholds the challenge, the judges will redraw the map themselves, empanel another body to do it, or (horror of horrors) return the matter to the Legislature that drew the first one. 

Carnahan, Cleaver, Clay 

It looks like Carnahan is increasingly going it alone with his legal challenge. When black Democrats from both sides of the state defected to the Republicans to override Nixon’s veto, it was made publicly obvious what was already known privately – that both U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II (the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus) and U.S. Rep. Wm. Lacy Clay are content with the map as drawn by Republicans. When Carnahan touts his legal challenge, he offers Cleaver and Clay the guarantee that their districts would remain safe if the map were redrawn in a less partisan fashion, though that promise is not his to make. Of course, it is not easy for a man who lost his district to argue to two men who kept their districts that they should risk losing their districts in a gamble that he might get his district back. 

Recusals and Russ 

Carnahan’s increasing isolation in this legal battle was made most painfully evident when the three judges on the Supreme Court appointed by Democratic governors – Chief Judge Rick Teitelman (appointed by Gov. Bob Holden), Judge Mary Russell (Holden) and Judge George Draper (recently appointed by Nixon) – recused themselves from the case.

If the EYE were to look suspiciously for evidence of behind-the-scene power-playing by party giants, such as Nixon or U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill, this is the place to look. With these recusals, the EYE would conclude, the Missouri Democratic Party abandoned Russ Carnahan and all but doomed this legal effort to failure.

The protect Claire factor

At this point, Nixon, McCaskill and other white Democrats on the statewide ticket in 2012 are focused intently on their own porkchops in the political frying pan. And Carnahan’s quixotic effort is beginning to look like something that might mess up their meal. Nixon’s seat is fairly safe (not that any incumbent ever really feels that way), but McCaskill is up for the fight of her political life in 2012 and the word is out in major-donor circles among Democratic women: now is not the time to antagonize the party’s black base. And Russ Carnahan is dangerously poised to do just that. 

Who’s on 2nd? 

When Carnahan’s suit fails, as it almost certainly will do, he will run for Congress – at any rate, he repeatedly has said that is what he will do. Those who take Carnahan at his word, the EYE has been told, have encouraged Carnahan to run for the open 2nd Congressional District seat vacated by Todd Akin, who is running for the U.S. Senate. Democrats, both in Missouri and nationally, who do not want to see the black base antagonized by a primary challenge to Clay have pledged Carnahan all but limitless financial support to run in the 2nd CD, the EYE is told.

Also, this is the choice that would further Carnahan’s own argument that Missouri deserves a less partisan political map. The 1st CD is going to be Democratic, with or without Carnahan, but only a Democratic candidate with his name recognition and experience could beat the Republican nominee that emerges from the primary fight in the 2nd CD.

These arguments to Carnahan, the EYE is told, are being made privately, where most of the important conversations in politics are conducted. Publicly, we have political pundits Dave Drebes and Jeff Smith (the former state senator and confessed felon) egging Carnahan to go head to head with Clay. They say they like Clay’s chances. The EYE thinks they are setting Carnahan up for a fall.

Based on August primary voter turnout over the last 10 years, 62.5 percent of likely Democratic primary voters in the 1st CD are black; 1 percent is Hispanic. So 63.5 percent of likely Democratic Primary voters are not white. Since he was first elected in 2000, Clay has received an average of 91percent of the vote in majority-black precincts. Even more significant, and little known, is that Clay has received an average of 65 percent of the vote in majority-white precincts.

Finally, we have to consider that in the newly expanded 1st CD, 80 percent of the voters are already in the existing 1st CD. And among the 20 percent of voters who currently reside in Carnahan’s 3rd CD, half of them used to be represented by Clay in the Missouri Senate. So 90 percent of all voters in the newly expanded 1st CD have already voted for Lacy Clay.

Carnahan has no real path to victory against Lacy unless he makes major inroads among black voters (not going to happen) and at the same time convinces large numbers of white Republicans in South St. Louis to cross over and vote for him in the Democratic Primary. Also not likely to happen, considering that these are the same white Republicans who voted overwhelmingly for the ethically challenged Ed Martin last time against Carnahan, and that the GOP has it's own contested primary.

Meanwhile, next door in Missouri's open 2nd CD, the primary has been held open for Carnahan, national Democratic leaders have offered him lavish money and unlimited support, and the district leans only slightly Republican, about 53 percent. So the math is clear and inescapable – the only congressional run that Carnahan can win in 2012 is in Missouri's 2nd Congressional District.

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