Russ, You Can’t Win in the First

The St. Louis American published a pretty good analysis today of the dangerous situation brewing in the St. Louis Democratic community. As Congressman Russ Carnahan considers his political future following the elimination of his Congressional district, one scenario includes the son of the former governor running against his fellow Democratic congressman, Lacy Clay, in Clay’s newly redrawn, but still largely African-American, district.

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.

Those stats alone show what a challenge it would be for Carnahan to win in the 1st District. But I’ll go on to say that “victory” is indeed impossible for Russ Carnahan if he made the selfish and unfortunate choice to run in the First. Here’s why:

  1. It would tarnish the family name. The Carnahan brand is gold in Missouri Democratic politics. Blacks, whites, rural, urban, rich, and poor — Democrats from all categories have supported the Carnahans for decades. Russ has benefited greatly from his family name. So has his sister, Robin, the Secretary of State. A Clay-Carnahan primary is going to be the nastiest, most devisive and racially charged political contest St. Louis has seen in a long time. Its effects will spill over into the November general election and surely the March and April local elections in 2013. Among black Democrats, the Carnahan name will be forever damaged. Clay supporters will see to that. Russ and his family have more to gain in countless future elections by preserving the Carnahan brand. Indeed, the Missouri Democratic Party does as well.
  2. It would never be over. One of the downsides about being a member of Congress is having to run for re-election every 24 months. In fact, you are actually always running for re-election. This would especially be true for Russ Carnahan if he would manage to narrowly defeat Lacy Clay. The next campaign starts the day after Election Day. Whether it would be Clay, his sister, or any of the many up-and-coming African-American politicians in the majority-black voting district, Carnahan would be walking around with a target on his back from Day One.
  3. Don’t be a tool. Some people are encouraging Carnahan to run against Clay for very selfish reasons, such as to increase turnout in their own elections. A well-financed, racially charged Congressional primary fight is sure to bring out voters for lower profile races down ballot. Like the treasurer’s race, for instance. Carnahan shouldn’t allow himself to be a tool of self-serving people who care less about the Democratic Party and the principles it stands for (such as inclusion) than they do their own ambitions. And even if Carnahan squeaked out an Election Night win, he will have so divided the district and the city that there would be little to celebrate.

In the end, I hope Russ Carnahan does what is best for the city, the Democratic Party, and his own family name.

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About Antonio D. French

Antonio French is a St. Louis City alderman representing the 21st Ward. He is also a writer and political consultant. He lives in the O'Fallon neighborhood with his wife, baby and two dogs. You can follow Antonio on Twitter: @AntonioFrench

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