Missouri 6: Graves Vs. Barnes- A Royal Rumble in Kansas City

by Stuart Rothenberg January 23, 2008 · 11:05 PM EST

“At-risk” incumbents come in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes their vulnerability follows from their voting records or their personal lives. Other times, it has nothing to do with them personally and everything to do with the quality of their opponents or the makeup of their electorates. And sometimes, it’s the fault of broad national trends.

Republican Rep. Sam Graves (Mo.) has more than one of these problems this cycle, and he’ll need all his political skill to fend off a high-profile Democratic assault on his seat.

Graves, who served in both the Missouri state House and state Senate, was first elected to Congress from his Northwest Missouri district in 2000, when he won an open-seat contest against Steve Danner, a Democratic state legislator who was trying to succeed his mother, retiring Rep. Pat Danner (D).

Graves hasn’t had a tough race since, winning with more than 60 percent of the vote each time. His 2004 opponent, Charlie Broomfield, was hyped for a time by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee as a challenger with deep pockets and the potential to upset Graves. But that race never developed.

Missouri’s 6th district is politically competitive, but it isn’t quite the tossup district that Democrats like to portray it. Most of the state legislators who represent it in Jefferson City are Republicans, and George W. Bush carried it handily (winning all 26 counties in the district), with 57 percent, in 2004.

But Graves definitely is in for a fight for his re-election.

First, he has drawn a formidable opponent in Kay Barnes (D), who served two terms as mayor of Kansas City, the largest city in the state. She left office last May.

Barnes takes credit (and has received plenty of it) for revitalizing the city’s downtown, and like many Democrats, she is offering a “time for a change” message that should resonate with voters. She already has the backing of EMILY’s List, the pro-choice Democratic fundraising group, and she has the look of a feisty campaigner and a strong fundraiser.

Second, the national and state environments are not likely to benefit Graves. The president’s poll numbers are low, Congress is not held in high regard, and the state’s sitting governor, Republican Matt Blunt, who is up for re-election in November, has more problems than GOP strategists would like.

Third, Graves has not always helped himself. While the state’s senior Senator, Kit Bond (R), has endorsed the Congressman for re-election, the two GOP officeholders have not always had the warmest of relations.

In December, a Roll Call investigative piece by reporter Paul Singer raised questions about free use of an airplane that the Congressman received from a contracting firm in his district. Graves’ office has said that there is nothing wrong with him borrowing a plane. But in the wake of several recent articles about his financial holdings, Graves has amended his personal financial disclosure forms to clarify his family’s investments in ethanol plants.

One of Graves’ campaign consultants/ strategists, Jeff Roe, is so controversial — The Kansas City Star said he has a reputation for “ruthlessly laying waste to his opponents” — that he has rubbed even some Republicans the wrong way. For example, Missouri Speaker Rod Jetton (R), who has had his own run-ins with Roe, has been more than kind to Barnes’ Congressional bid.

Barnes portrays Graves as too conservative, criticizing his votes against the Democrats’ SCHIP proposal last year, against a bill that would have strengthened penalties against those involved in dog fighting and against a Democratic proposal to increase the minimum wage. And she promises to outwork him.

If Barnes is correct, the 6th district’s rural areas are accounting for less and less of the Congressional district’s vote, and even those voters in the rural areas have shown a greater willingness to vote for popular Democrats.

Democratic strategists are absolutely euphoric about Barnes’ candidacy, and during my interview with her late last year I found her to be both energetic and articulate.

But while Barnes is a strong challenger, she certainly isn’t a perfect one. Democrats seem to gloss over her weaknesses and liabilities in their understandable enthusiasm for her.

For example, while her work in Kansas City is an asset, only part of the city is in the 6th district, and it’s the more Republican part. Most of the city is in the very Democratic 5th district, which won’t help Barnes.

Unlike the last Democrat to hold this Congressional seat, Barnes will have trouble presenting herself as a cultural moderate. Her support from EMILY’s List means campaign cash, but it also tags her as pro-choice in a district that is culturally more conservative.

And Barnes’ appearance on the cover of a magazine published by Kansas City’s gay- lesbian-bisexual-transgender community isn’t likely to go over well in the district’s rural counties, where she hopes to make inroads because she was born and raised in St. Joseph.

Finally, Barnes’ “change” argument may not be so easy to sell as she hopes. Not only is she 25 years older than Graves, but she may not be helped by the kind of “change” epitomized by the Democratic presidential nominee, whether that is Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) or Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.).

Democrats view Missouri’s 6th as an example of their ability to widen the playing field in 2008 by putting into play districts that were not seriously contested in 2006. They are right about that. But it’s too early to know whether they really can win it this year. Neither party can take this race for granted, which makes this a race worth watching.