ST. LOUIS — Disaffected voters often grumble about the similarities between Democrats and Republicans at the ballot box. Scrap that argument in Missouri's 3rd Congressional District.
Democrat Russ Carnahan, a six-year veteran of Congress, is as low-key as they come, the scion of a revered former Missouri governor and one incumbent who isn't running from a voting record closely tied to President Barack Obama.
Ed Martin, his Republican challenger, is a brash-talking, admittedly confrontational former aide to Gov. Matt Blunt who has embraced the tea party movement while chiding Carnahan — and his family members — for dipping in the public till.
The differences "would be clear to anybody who is breathing," Carnahan said in an interview.
The district includes parts of the city and county of St. Louis as well as Jefferson and Ste. Genevieve counties to the south. It's solidly Democratic, thanks to former Rep. Dick Gephardt, who as Carnahan's predecessor and both a House majority and minority leader helped ensure a favorable configuration for future party prospects.
Libertarian Steven Hedrick and Constitution Party nominee Nick Ivanovich are also on the ballot.
Carnahan, 52, touts a record of public service to the district, from funneling federal money for road repairs and Mississippi River levee improvements to leading the call for congressional investigations of the Department of Veterans Affairs. Sterilization problems at the St. Louis VA Medical Center put nearly 2,000 veterans at risk of HIV and hepatitis.
Carnahan spent four years as a Missouri lawmaker, first winning election to the state House in 2000 just three weeks after his father, Mel Carnahan, died in a plane crash while campaigning for U.S. Senate. He first won election to the U.S. House in 2004.
He voted for the 2009 economic stimulus act and supported the federal health care overhaul this year — positions that have earned him Martin's enmity but from which Carnahan doesn't waver.
"The (Obama) administration and the Congress were handed a very tough plate, an economy that was on the brink of going into a full scale depression," he said. "We had to take some very urgent steps."
Martin, 40, grew up in New Jersey before moving to Missouri in the early '90s to attend law school at Saint Louis University. A staunch Catholic and anti-abortion activist, his wide-ranging resume includes stints working for the Vatican, the St. Louis archdiocese and the city's election board.
He also spearheaded an unsuccessful effort to oppose the 2008 sale of St. Louis-based Anheuser-Busch to a Belgian brewer. But it was his stormy 15-month tenure as Blunt's chief of staff that garnered Martin the most attention — much of it unfavorable.
In that position, Martin fired Blunt aide Scott Eckersley after he warned Martin and others that state law required the preservation of government e-mails as public records. After Eckersley's firing, the governor's administration released an unsolicited packet to reporters accusing Eckersley of involvement in a group sex Internet site, raising questions about possible drug use and accusing him of doing private work on state computers.
Eckersley filed a wrongful termination and defamation suit and was eventually paid $500,000 in a settlement in which no parties admitted wrongdoing. The state's legal fees exceeding $1.6 million.
Martin defends his handling of the case, calling Eckersley a "disgruntled employee." The lawsuit was only settled for political reasons at the insistence of two Democrats, Martin said: Blunt's successor, Gov. Jay Nixon, and Attorney General Chris Koster.
"The public record is out there," Martin said. "No one has ever produced any evidence that Ed Martin was involved in improperly using e-mails for political purposes."
That hasn't kept Carnahan from blasting Martin's "personal bailout" in both public statements and a television ad about what the incumbent calls the "Memogate scandal."
Martin hasn't been shy about firing back. At a recent debate, the challenger accused Russ Carnahan of helping his younger brother Tom, a wind farm developer, collect $107 million in stimulus money for a northwest Missouri project.
The project has also been criticized by state Republican leaders and U.S. Rep. Roy Blunt, who is challenging Missouri Secretary of State Robin Carnahan for an open U.S. Senate seat.
"It looks like the best brother to be is a Carnahan if you want to make big money," Martin said at the debate. "We see a scandal enveloping this family. ... Don't be fooled. It was in the stimulus, it was cash money, and it was wrong."
Both Russ Carnahan and his sister have denied that Lost Creek Wind Farm received any favorable treatment. More than 1,000 companies qualified for renewable energy tax credits under the program.
Terry Jones, a University of Missouri-St. Louis professor, called Martin's aggressive tactics a political necessity. Even if Republicans are able to pick up the 39 seats needed to regain control of the House, the midterm turnaround may not be forceful enough to flip the 3rd District, he said.
"It would take a real national sweep beyond the numbers being suggested now for this one to fall to a Republican," he said.
In an unpredictable election year where tea party support fueled upset wins by U.S. Senate candidates Christine O'Donnell in Delaware and Joe Miller in Alaska, Martin notes with pride his endorsement by the St. Louis Tea Party.
He's also won the endorsement of former Missouri Sen. John Danforth and Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, Ariz., who hails Martin's call for "high walls and wide gates" at the U.S.-Mexico border.
"I don't know about the national tea party. I don't know about other places," Martin said. "It's not always perfect. But in St. Louis, it represents this incredible energy concerned about the direction the country is going."