JEFFERSON CITY — Democratic state Sen. Chuck Graham, a symbolic leader of stem-cell research supporters, said he will probably challenge Republican U.S. Sen. Jim Talent, who has endorsed legislation to criminalize a certain kind of stem-cell research.
Graham, D-Columbia, who would be his party’s first candidate for the 2006 Senate race, is paralyzed from injuries he suffered in a car accident while a teenager and has helped lead the effort against Missouri legislation that would ban a type of stem-cell research commonly known as therapeutic cloning.
Talent is a co-sponsor of federal legislation introduced last month by Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., that also would make the practice illegal, punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a civil fine of at least $1 million.
Meanwhile, the Missourian has learned that the Senate race was the subject of a meeting between three Democratic statewide office-holders Tuesday afternoon. Secretary of State Robin Carnahan, Attorney General Jay Nixon and State Auditor Claire McCaskill attended the meeting after the inauguration of St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay.
Graham did not attend but acknowledged others are weighing potential candidacies.
“Talent’s seat is vulnerable, and many of us are looking into it,” he told the Missourian. “I’m just happy Democrats are sitting in a room talking about how to find the right candidate.”
Carnahan, Nixon and McCaskill all enjoy statewide name recognition, an advantage Graham lacks. But all three have previously indicated they are not interested in challenging Talent.
McCaskill could be viewed as a leading contender because she gained plenty of statewide attention by defeating incumbent Gov. Bob Holden in a hotly contested August primary before losing to Republican Matt Blunt in the November general election. Carnahan is new to statewide office; Nixon, in his fourth term as attorney general, has lost two previous bids for U.S. Senate.
Asked whether Graham would consider competing against McCaskill in a Democratic primary, Graham Chief of Staff Ted Farnen said it is too early to speculate.
Neither McCaskill nor Nixon responded to repeated Missourian requests for comment Wednesday; Carnahan would not comment other than to confirm the St. Louis meeting was held.
Corey Dillon, director of the Missouri Democratic Party, would not confirm whether those at the meeting reached a verdict on a leading candidate, but said the party simply wants to find someone who can make an effective run at Talent.
“One thing that is clear is that Missouri voters don’t like what they’re seeing from Jim Talent,” Dillon said. “People are worried about what he’s doing to the state.”
Talent spokesman Rich Chrismer did not directly comment Wednesday about Graham’s potential candidacy but said stem-cell research “is too important to politicize.”
Graham said in an interview with The Associated Press that his interest in the race recently spiked from about 10 percent to 75 percent when he learned that Talent was sponsoring the anti-cloning legislation and that research supporters were considering an initiative ballot measure to specifically allow therapeutic cloning in Missouri.
“That pumped up my interest in the race enormously,” said Graham. “I think it makes it much more winnable, because the vast majority of Missourians are on (my) side” on stem-cell research.
Aside from name recognition, Graham faces the money barrier in a statewide race. Talent reported having about $1.35 million in his campaign account at the end of March. Graham’s state Senate district — his natural political base — covers only Boone and Randolph counties.
In therapeutic cloning, also known as somatic cell nuclear transfer, the nucleus of an unfertilized woman’s egg is removed and replaced with the nucleus of another cell from a human body. The egg is then stimulated to divide, as it would when fertilized by a sperm, and the early stem cells are harvested.
Stem cells form very early in an embryo’s development and can mature into a variety of cells to form organs and other body parts. Some scientists believe such cells could be used to help repair damaged body parts and cure diseases.
Opponents of therapeutic cloning argue it destroys human life and that other types of research involving adult or umbilical cord stem cells could yield significant benefits. Talent supports those other kinds of stem cell research, Chrismer said, pointing to his votes for appropriation bills for the National Institutes of Health, which in turn allocates money for stem-cell research.
“He has tremendous respect for both the value of human life and for the medical institutions that are trying to relieve human suffering,” Chrismer said. “In view of the changing science, he continues to evaluate his position.”
Anti-abortion groups have waged a heavy lobbying effort in the Missouri Legislature to ban therapeutic cloning, but the state Senate laid the bill aside earlier this month under opposition from both majority Republicans and Democrats.
Graham was among those vowing a filibuster and has tearfully pointed to his own spinal injury as reason for his opposition. Although Graham says he has given up hope of walking again, he said others suffering similar injuries remain hopeful that therapeutic cloning could lead to a cure.
Graham, 40, is not hesitant to use his hand-powered wheelchair as a symbol.
“I think I would be a quandary as a candidate as (opponents) looked at me — exactly what do you do with this guy?” Graham said.
The Associated Press and Missourian reporter Elizabeth Baird contributed to this report.