JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — U.S. Rep. Russ Carnahan is running for Congress again next year. The St. Louis Democrat assures people of that. But exactly which district Carnahan will run in remains to be determined.
The uncertainty surrounding Carnahan's campaign stems from a legal challenge to Missouri's new congressional boundaries enacted in response to the 2010 census. But uncertainty also abounds in many other places. Aside from Carnahan and his two fellow Democratic incumbents, Democrats don't have any well-known candidates for Congress. Meanwhile, Republicans have no declared candidate for attorney general, only recently gained a treasurer's candidate and can't seem to settle on who wants to run for governor or lieutenant governor.
Some Republicans bemoan that their party is in disarray. The state Democratic Party, meanwhile, is in debt.
Suffice it to say, the 2012 election season is not off to a smooth start in Missouri.
Perhaps the clearest indication of the political confusion occurred this past week in a Cole County courtroom, where attorneys argued that a judge should strike down a new congressional district map enacted earlier this year when a supermajority of Republican lawmakers — aided by a few Democrats — overrode a veto by Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon.
The map squeezes Missouri's nine current districts into eight because Missouri's population growth failed to keep pace with the nation's during the past decade. To accommodate that change, state lawmakers essentially squeezed Carnahan out of his current congressional seat by splitting his territory among four districts.
They also drew some fairly funky shapes to make the rest of the map work — resulting in district nicknames such as the "dead lizard," the "three-headed toad" and the "lake lobster claw," as Carnahan notes. The legal challenge contends the districts violate requirements to remain compact among other things.
Carnahan says he is waiting to declare which district he is running in until the Missouri Supreme Court eventually rules on the new map.
"Why would I pick a district — or a fight — that may or may not be there?" Carnahan rhetorically asks.
Because of his name recognition and fundraising, Carnahan might be able to adjust to a last-moment change in district boundaries. But other Democrats are diminishing their fundraising and organizational opportunities the longer they wait to launch a congressional campaign.
Missouri Democratic Party Chairman Mike Sanders, who took over the post just three weeks ago, insists there are several potential Democratic candidates for congressional seats who — like Carnahan — are remaining mum about specific races while they wait for the legal battle to play out. He declined to identify any of them.
"Fielding strong candidates in some of these congressional seats — once the boundaries are drawn — is not going to be our problem in 2012," Sanders said.
Missouri Republican Party Executive Director Lloyd Smith contends there is another reason why Democrats are sitting on the sidelines in the congressional races.
"No Democrat wants to step forward and be associated with (President Barack) Obama," Smith said.
Yet Republicans have had their own troubles with candidates.
Their presumed candidates for governor and lieutenant governor — Peter Kinder and Steven Tilley respectively — both opted out of the races after encountering political or personal troubles. Assuming that incumbent Lieutenant Governor Kinder was running for governor, state Sen. Brad Lager had declared his candidacy for lieutenant governor — only to find himself in a potential Republican primary after Kinder instead said he would seek re-election.
Republicans have no declared challenger to Democratic Attorney General Chris Koster, though Smith said a couple private-sector attorneys he declined to name "are very interested" in the race. Until state Rep. Cole McNary declared his candidacy at the start of December, Republicans also had no candidate to challenge Democratic Treasurer Clint Zweifel.
"This has the potential to be one of the best election climates in modern history for conservatives across the country, and we can't even find candidates to run for attorney general and treasurer," Lager said last week. "It says something about the disarray our party's currently in."
Smith deflected any concern that the Republican Party is in turmoil, insisting it is well-positioned to recruit, train, finance and aid its candidates.
In their most recent filings with the Missouri Ethics Commission, the state Republican Party reported more than $346,000 in its account while the Democratic Party reported less than $7,000 of cash and nearly $295,000 of debt. Yet Sanders insists the Democratic Party will have no problem raising money for 2012 and notes that many of the party's top-of-the-ticket candidates have their own healthy campaign accounts.
Carnahan, for example, reported $393,535 in his account as of the end of September. Not bad for a candidate for an undeclared district.
"My supporters and donors are ready to go and will be ready to run," Carnahan said.
David A. Lieb has covered government and politics for The Associated Press since 1995. He can be reached at http://twitter.com/DavidALieb.