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Carnahan era in Missouri politics comes to a close

For nearly a quarter-century, one Carnahan or another has held public office in Missouri.

They roamed Congress, the statehouse and occupied the governor’s mansion.

Now, though, the latest generation of Carnahan pols slips quietly away from the game. They’ve enjoyed their own round of electoral success without quite reaching the heights of their parents.

“The passing of an era,” summed up Dave Robertson, a political scientist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

Mel Carnahan left his mark on Missouri by pushing through a significant boost in school funding, and a sizable tax increase to pay for it.

And Missouri politics left the most painful kind of scars on the Carnahan clan when Mel Carnahan died in a plane crash that was part of the airborne, hop-scotching campaigns required to win office in the state.

In January, his son and daughter step away from politics. Russ Carnahan is moving on after multiple re-elections to the U.S. House in a St. Louis district, but without enough clout to fight off a redistricting map that ultimately muscled him out of office.

Robin Carnahan won two statewide races, but is leaving the secretary of state’s office after trying, and failing, to move up to the U.S. Senate in 2010.

If the Kennedys were about reaching out to the poor and inspiring big dreams, the Carnahans were more about public education, steady service and representing traditional Democratic values.

The high point for the Carnahan brand was also a low point. In 2000, after Gov. Mel Carnahan died in the plane crash, he was still able, as a dead man, to defeat Republican John Ashcroft in the November election. His wife, Jean, took his place as senator.

That same year, Russ Carnahan won his first elected office — a seat as the 59th District state representative for St. Louis. Four years later, he was elected to Congress on the same day his sister won secretary of state. Russ Carnahan went on to lead the Center Aisle Caucus, an informal group of lawmakers disenchanted with the intense partisanship on Capitol Hill.

In 2008, the 1,749,152 votes Robin Carnahan received in her re-election ranks as the most any Missouri candidate ever received. One of her top achievements as secretary of state: digitizing the office, a move she says saved businesses millions and aided scores of family genealogists.

If the family is disappointed by its political fading out, it hides it well. Jean Carnahan, who lost her only bid for public office in 2002 when Republican Jim Talent defeated her in a tough race for her Senate seat, said there is no shame in losing.

“The shame,” she said, “is in not trying.”

Said Robin: “Everybody in my family has won elections and lost elections. For us, this is not something that’s a big surprise. I feel like I’m leaving at a time when I can continue to make a contribution, and that’s what I want to do.”

Electoral successes — and defeats — have co-mingled freely over the decades in the Carnahan family. A.S.J. Carnahan, Mel’s father, was elected to Congress in 1944, but lost in 1946 in a GOP landslide. His family and the pundits urged him not to run again in 1948. But he was determined and won that year, the first of six consecutive wins. His congressional career ended on a loss when he was defeated in 1960, but he then went on to become the U.S. ambassador to Sierra Leone.

His son knew similar highs and lows. Mel Carnahan won two terms in the state House in the 1960s before losing a bid for state Senate in 1966. He sat out of state politics for 14 years, serving on school boards and church building committees, until he won state treasurer in 1980. He lost a race for governor four years later, before winning lieutenant governor in 1988 and then governor in 1992.

“I feel exhilarated,” Carnahan said on the night he became the first Democrat since 1976 to be elected governor.

Weeks later at his inaugural, Carnahan vowed to transform Missouri into “a place where no one wants to leave.” His legacy may have been established his first year when he pushed for, and signed, the tax increase for public schools.

Jean Carnahan said her husband started talking about running for office as a teenager. Losses are part of the game.

“If your heart is there and you’ve got something to say you keep fighting for that, no matter what,” she said. “You take the opportunities and do your best.”

On primary election night in August, Jean Carnahan said she reminded her son Russ that Mel Carnahan went to work as a lawyer the day after he lost the governor’s race in 1984.

“He looked and me and said, ‘What makes you think I won’t?’ ” she recalled. “He’s going to be OK.”

Russ Carnahan, 54, has a few more weeks of work left in the House before he steps down in January. A lawyer, he said he hasn’t determined the next phase of his career, but plans to continue in public service.

“Being elected is just one way (to give to your community),” he said. “I don’t really look at that as an end of something.”

Robin Carnahan, 51, said she also hasn’t determined her next step.

“I’m beginning to think about it more seriously now that we’re through the election,” she said.

Both she and Russ haven’t ruled out future campaigns.

“I’m not going to shut the door,” Robin said. “But I don’t have anything in mind at this moment. Opportunities come up in political life, and I understand that. We saw our father go in and out of public and private life his whole career. He always thought he was a better governor for having spent time in the private sector.”

It was Robin Carnahan who said at her father’s funeral in 2000 that the family wouldn’t “let the fire go out” when it came to public service. “That passion hasn’t gone away,” she said. “That’s never going to change.”

Whether voters would elect them again is an open question. The state that elected Mel Carnahan and sided with Bill Clinton for president twice in the 1990s has shifted rightward. Robin and Russ’ twin defeats in 2010 and 2012 will linger in voters’ minds, Robertson said.

“It’s almost as if the losses each has suffered are magnified by the other one’s loss,” Robertson said. “I think it would be really difficult to get back, although I think they could do it.”

Jean Carnahan said she’s comfortable with the Carnahan legacy — whether family members win future elections or not. People still approach her when she’s out in public to say thanks for her family’s work.

“I really will miss it when they no longer come up to me,” she said, “and they no longer remember.”