By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 4, 2010; A01
QUEEN CITY, MO. -- It would seem like the wrong kind of year for Roy Blunt to go looking for a promotion.
The conservative Republican congressman is the picture of the Washington insider. Blunt rose through the House GOP ranks as the party's emissary to K Street lobbyists. His wife is a prominent lobbyist. He raises more money from lobbyists than just about any of his House colleagues and is unapologetic about wringing money from the federal budget to benefit his home state.
In other words, he is just the type of candidate voters are supposed to be shunning this year in favor of angry outsiders who say they will overturn the Blunt way of doing things.
Yet so far, this baggage doesn't appear to be hurting him. Blunt is running far ahead of his Republican primary challengers in the race to replace retiring Sen. Christopher S. "Kit" Bond (R). And polls show he is even with or slightly ahead of the Democratic candidate, Robin Carnahan. A seat that a year ago seemed to be one of the Democrats' best pickup chances is now viewed by both parties as up for grabs.
It could be that Carnahan, who is from a prominent political family, is viewed by Missouri voters as an establishment candidate herself. Or that Democrats are so unpopular at the moment in this all-important swing state that any Republican on the ballot would be running strong.
But it may be something else -- less apparent but more significant: that contrary to the simplistic "get rid of them all" narrative that has come to define news coverage of the 2010 elections, the voters here, and in nearby states, are more willing to trust veterans of the political system to sort out the nation's problems.
States like Missouri and its industrial heartland neighbors are different from the South and the West, where the major parties have lost a spate of early primaries this year to upstarts with more radical, anti-Washington views. Yes, voters here are frustrated and angry. They are skeptical that either party has the right answers to ease deeply rooted economic struggles that began with the decline of U.S. manufacturing in the late 1970s.
But shrill, style-over-substance campaigning alone doesn't often go over as well in this part of the country, and "tea party" candidates have not found as much success. Blunt vs. Carnahan is an old-fashioned matchup between two polished politicians who both emphasize their competence and their experience.
"Missouri is an establishment kind of place," said Jeff Roe, a Kansas City-based GOP political consultant. "Blunt is everything voters there want . . . even if they don't like everything he's done."A pocket of power
Missouri lies in the middle of the long Interstate 70 corridor that spools westward from Baltimore through the Midwest to Kansas City and beyond. Call these states the "heartland of America," or the "Rust Belt" or the "smokestack states." If you are from too-cool New York or L.A., look down your nose at it as "flyover country."
But know this: Political strategists and aspiring presidential candidates see it as anything but. Five states along this route -- Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and Pennsylvania -- were instrumental to Democrats' sweep of Congress in 2006 and President Obama's election in 2008; and the results of the elections there will have great influence over who holds power in Washington next year and ultimately who sits in the Oval Office after 2012. The Washington Post will explore the political dynamics of this crucial swath in an occasional series of newspaper articles and Web features over the course of the 2010 election season.
Each of the states features an open Senate race this year, and Republicans have fielded experienced politicians in each contest.
Dan Coats, a former senator, ambassador to Germany and Washington lobbyist, is the GOP Senate nominee in Indiana after beating four primary opponents, including former congressman John Hostettler, who was endorsed by tea party hero Ron Paul. In Illinois, Rep. Mark Steven Kirk, a moderate Republican, easily beat two tea party-backed candidates in his Senate primary in February. And tea party groups have kept their distance from Rob Portman, the GOP Senate nominee in Ohio who served as President George W. Bush's trade representative and is among a handful of high-profile Republicans who have yet to sign the conservative Club for Growth's pledge to repeal the health-care bill.
The GOP hopes to unseat Democrats in at least 15 House districts across the region and to capture Democrat-held governorships in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Illinois.
With narrow margins in each race, both parties must deploy the full strength of their political machinery. And the clout of every powerful special interest in Washington will be put to the test, from unions to business groups to advocacy organizations focused on abortion rights, gun control and the environment.
The area is already receiving plenty of special attention from the White House. In recent weeks, Obama has traveled to Pennsylvania to sell his economic initiatives, to Missouri to pitch his health-care plan and to Ohio to show off a factory addition financed by federal stimulus money. Obama is scheduled to return to Missouri on July 8 for a Carnahan fundraiser. Vice President Biden campaigned in Cleveland on Wednesday for Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher, the Democrat who will face Portman in November.
Although culturally diverse, the region is bound by a shared sense among its middle- and working-class residents that the fundamentals of a good life -- a decent job, affordable education, good health and retirement benefits -- are becoming harder to reach.
As Blunt rumbles across the state in his campaign bus, emblazoned with the slogan "Jobs for Missouri's Future," he sticks to a simple formula: Keep the focus on Obama and the shortcomings of the president's ambitious agenda. "People in this country, in the last 16 months, have seen a future so close they can touch it, and they just don't want to go there," he told a group in Queen City. "They want to get back quite a ways from this cliff."
In speeches, Blunt often harks back to the old days, recalling his long-ago jobs as a schoolteacher and president of a Baptist college. "I was the first person in my family to ever graduate from college," Blunt told 25 people who had gathered at an elementary school. "First house I ever lived in was on a 69-acre dairy farm, with no running water."
Ivan Kaden, a local farmer, likes Blunt's easygoing manner but is concerned about his more-recent history as a senior member of the House Republican leadership, when the party was entangled in ethics scandals. He remembers the same problems with deficits and partisan sniping when Blunt's party ran Congress.
Yet despite his concerns about Blunt, Kaden said he isn't inclined to vote for an insurgency candidate like state Sen. Chuck Purgason, who is running as the tea party alternative to Blunt in August's GOP primary. "I want someone who is competent," he said.A pragmatic sensibility
In Washington, GOP leaders accuse Democrats of running up the deficit and say they would put an end to new spending. Blunt knows this would not be a winning argument back home in Missouri, even for a small-government Republican. While pledging more restraint than Democrats, Blunt also speaks of his skill at feeding his state's appetite for federal largesse. Aboard the campaign bus one recent afternoon, he and Bond ticked off their joint efforts: university research aid, renewable-energy projects, improvements to Missouri's interstate system. As he explains on his campaign Web site, "Federal and state government can play vital and positive roles in many ways."
Salty and quick, Carnahan bills herself as "an independent voice." Yet she, too, is running a conventional campaign based on her record as an establishment Democrat. Carnahan, who still runs the family farm, is serving her second term as secretary of state; she was reelected in 2008 with more than 1.7 million votes, a record for a statewide candidate in Missouri.
She disparages the "bickering fights and nonsense" that dominate debate in Washington, even as she reminds voters that it was the Republican Congress that engineered the Wall Street bailout and lavished the oil industry with perks.
"Most people think when you're put in charge of something and you're there for 10 years and you drive the truck off the cliff, you don't then give them the keys to your nice Sunday car," Carnahan said after a speech to a packed Teamsters hall in Joplin, in the heart of Blunt's southwestern House district.
Midwesterners aren't looking for ideological answers but rather a certain pragmatic sensibility, said Roy Temple, a Missouri political consultant and Carnahan ally. "I don't feel like it's partisanship as much as an unfocused angst about the way life is going," he said. "And it can shift direction really rapidly because it's untethered."
Lee Shultz, a nurse and a Democrat from northeast Clark County, decided to attend a Blunt event in Kahoka because she is afraid of the consequences of the health-care overhaul in her rural community. Which provision, in particular, troubles her? Shultz can't say. "I'm just assuming this is bad for doctors and they're going to leave our area," she said.
Maybe because they have lived through years of difficult economic times, people here often take a longer view of the current crisis and don't see anger as a means to an end. A sense of vulnerability runs deep across the region, where states are starved for cash and face ever-deeper cuts into government services. Missouri's current budget includes $900 million in federal stimulus money, but that funding will disappear next year.
"Whether it's getting the economy back on track so that it's fair for everybody, whether it's doing something to secure our energy future, whether it's doing something on health care because it's unsustainable -- I really don't think that most people think these are partisan issues," Carnahan said.
Blunt just wrapped up his bus tour of all 114 Missouri counties. Queen City, population 638, was his last stop. Since announcing his candidacy in February 2009, he has logged more than 500 events and signed up volunteer organizers in nearly 1,000 towns and cities in the state. At no point, he said, has a voter raised his experience as disqualifying.
"It was bigger a year ago than it is now," Blunt said confidently. "My predisposition politically is to assume that everyone may end up being for you, if they know what you're for."