WASHINGTON — 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 spending favors tucked into spending legislation.
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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.
Even White House spokesman Robert Gibbs acknowledged the obvious recently when he said that the Republicans might take over the House of Representatives. Still, House Democrats hit the roof when he said it.
Party officials, strategists and veterans of the president's campaign are trying to craft a message to awaken Democrats from their slumber.
"We're so engaged in the national debate that we're not looking at what's happening at home and how critical it is," Adolphus Pruitt of St. Louis said earlier this week during the NAACP convention in Kansas City.
Black voters were pivotal to McCaskill's Senate victory in 2006 over former Republican Sen. Jim Talent. She won 91 percent of African-American votes.
More importantly, the black share of the overall voter turnout in Missouri rose to 13 percent in 2006, up from 8 percent two years before, according to the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a research center devoted to issues that affect African-Americans and other minorities.
This year, few expect voter turnout — black turnout in particular — to be anywhere close to what it was in 2008, when the historic nature of Obama's candidacy sparked so much attention. In Missouri, more than 73 percent of the black electorate voted.
However, between the traditional drop in turnout in midterm elections and the sour mood toward incumbents, Democrats are facing some powerful head winds.
Monica Curls, the western Missouri political director for Carnahan, said that besides meetings with the black clergy, the campaign had been reaching out to neighborhood associations and community groups in Kansas City.
She was confident that there was untapped enthusiasm among Democrats and said that after the primary Aug. 3, the campaign "will be a lot more in your face."
Blunt, meanwhile, signaled from the beginning that he intended to reach out to black voters. He kicked off his Senate campaign on the campus of Harris-Stowe State University in St. Louis, one of the nation's historically black universities. He's met with black ministers on several occasions.
"I don't think Roy Blunt is doing anything less than making sure he reaches across ethnic and racial and political lines," said Lloyd Smith, who oversaw a similar strategy in 2006 when he managed Talent's re-election campaign.
Now the executive director of the Missouri Republican Party, Smith said Blunt was "trying to build a coalition to victory."
Even with Bond running interference, however, Blunt carries some heavy baggage. The NAACP has given him low marks for his votes on issues related to housing, hate crimes and the economy.
He was part of the House GOP leadership during the administration of former President George W. Bush, who wasn't popular with many black voters. Further, black leaders now think that Republicans in Congress have gone out of their way to oppose Obama on everything he's done.
"If Obama walked across the lawn ... whatever this man does is wrong. Nothing is right," said the Rev. Wallace Hartsfield Sr., pastor emeritus of Metropolitan Missionary Baptist Church in Kansas City, characterizing the GOP attitude.
Still, political experts said that Carnahan had to do more than expect to reap the benefits of resentment toward the GOP. They said she'd need to work for black support and hope for a big turnout.
"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."
(Steve Kraske of The Kansas City Star contributed to this story.)
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