Robin Carnahan, a Democrat, and Roy Blunt, a Republican, have been meeting with members of the black clergy lately, not to save their souls, but to win one of the top political contests in the country, a U.S. Senate seat from Missouri.
Both candidates see African-American voters as important to their chances of becoming Missouri’s next senator, and that road runs through the pulpits of black churches in Kansas City and St. Louis.
“The clergy in an urban community is the pulse,” said Gregory Ealey, pastor at Kansas City’s Paseo Baptist Church. “A lot of people wait to see what the clergy is going to do.”
The meetings have been get-acquainted sessions and full of questions, according to several attendees. The ministers asked about housing foreclosures and neighborhood neglect. They wondered whether the candidates would be “approachable” if they were elected, and whether they’d work to bring more federal money into their communities through earmarks, the special-project favors tucked into spending legislation.
Blunt, a seven-term congressman from southwest Missouri and the likely Republican nominee, has been a supporter of earmarks. Carnahan, the Missouri secretary of state and likely Democratic nominee, is not.
Earmarks are largely how the senator whose seat they hope to fill, Republican Kit Bond, won credibility and friendships in the black community over his 24 years on Capitol Hill, by steering federal dollars to housing projects and health and community centers in needy neighborhoods.
It makes for an interesting twist, particularly in this era of hyper-partisanship.
Bond worked closely with Democratic Rep. Emanuel Cleaver of Missouri on many of those projects when the congressman, a Methodist minister, was the mayor of Kansas City. They’re good friends. Cleaver even remained neutral during one of the senator’s re-election campaigns.
Now Bond and Cleaver have been shepherding Blunt and Carnahan, respectively, on their pilgrimages to the clergy.
Blunt faces an uphill climb, as most Republicans do, in wooing blacks’ support, but he doesn’t need to win a majority of them, just avoid a wipeout. Polls have found the race to be either tied or close for months.
In a state with a history of dramatic nail-biter elections, a little bit can mean a lot.
“Every vote matters in Missouri,” Blunt spokesman Rich Chrismer said.
While there’s no question that Carnahan will win the majority of African-American votes, Democrats are worried nonetheless.
“This is going to be a tough race,” Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat, told the crowd at a recent Carnahan fundraiser in Kansas City that featured President Barack Obama. “One of the things I’m most worried about is passion and enthusiasm. You’ve got to start shaking people by their shoulders and say, ‘Wake up!’ ”
She’s not alone.
Polls have shown an enthusiasm gap between the parties for months. Republicans appear to be much more fired up about the midterm elections than Democrats are.
“African-Americans are a significant part of the Democratic vote,” said Marc Farinella, a Democratic strategist who worked for Carnahan’s father, the late Gov. Mel Carnahan. “But it’s also a constituency that often feels taken for granted. If you neglect those relationships, you could pay a political price at the polls.”