National Republicans are beginning to express quiet optimism about their chances in Missouri’s 5th district open-seat race, a contest that has largely been ignored by both parties to this point.
On its face, the race between former Kansas City Mayor Emanuel Cleaver (D) and businesswoman Jeanne Patterson (R) is a laugher.
Cleaver is perhaps the best-known and best-liked politician in Kansas City and is extremely popular in the black community, which makes up 30 percent of the total district population. He served for eight years as the mayor of Kansas City — the population center of the district — and won 60 percent in a primary even though his opponent relentlessly attacked his character and heavily outspent him.
And the Kansas-City based district voted overwhelmingly for Al Gore in the 2000 presidential race and has been represented by a Democrat since 1948.
But Republicans believe that Patterson has the ultimate equalizer in modern politics — vast personal resources and a willingness to spend them — and that when combined with questions surrounding Cleaver’s character, those factors could turn this into a surprisingly competitive race.
Seeing a potential opening, national Republicans have quickly surrounded Patterson with a consultant team that scores high marks in Washington, D.C., with Glen Bolger of Public Opinion Strategies handling the polling and Sam Dawson of Dawson, McCarthy, Nelson as the media consultant.
“With a candidate who can self-fund and a very flawed Democrat candidate, this seat is ripe for the picking,” said Carl Forti, the National Republican Congressional Committee’s communications director.
Since winning the primary on Aug. 3 with 55 percent of the vote, Patterson has donated $968,000 to her campaign, bringing her total contribution in the race so far to nearly $1.6 million. Those donations have triggered the “Millionaire’s Amendment,” which allows Cleaver to raise contributions in $6,000 increments.
In an interview Tuesday, Patterson said she would “continue to invest resources to get my message out” and added that no limit has been set on the amount of money she is willing to donate to the race.
Patterson is the wife of Cerner Corp. CEO Neal Patterson. The company provides information technology services to the health care industry. In the second quarter of 2004, the company’s reported revenues were $228 million.
Patterson has already used her financial resources to begin a media campaign on Kansas City broadcast television introducing herself to the district’s voters.
Not surprisingly, Cleaver’s campaign has sought to make Patterson’s wealth an issue.
“The way you combat a multimillionaire’s attempt to buy a Congressional seat is a proven record of accomplishments,” said Cleaver spokesman Phil Scaglia. “That’s what Mayor Cleaver is campaigning on.”
Jamie Metzl, Cleaver’s Democratic primary opponent, attacked Cleaver for his owning a car wash that did not have workers compensation insurance, among a variety of other alleged problems. But voters seemed to revolt against the charges, as they came from a relatively unknown messenger.
Given Cleaver’s profile in the district, Greg Speed, communications director at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said his organization has little concern about the race.
“This is a solidly Democratic district and we are lucky to have a candidate in Mayor Cleaver who is well-known and well-respected throughout the Kansas City community,” he said.
Even Anita Dunn, a media consultant with Squier Knapp Dunn, the firm that handled the television ads for Metzl in the primary, said that given Cleaver’s name identification and reputation in the community, the race is unwinnable for a Republican.
“It is a Democratic district in which the people who may have supported another candidate in the primary will not support Patterson over Cleaver,” Dunn said.
Past history seems to back up Democrats’ claims. The last time Republicans contested the 5th district was in 1994 when former professional football player Ron Freeman (R) was the party’s nominee in an open-seat race to replace Rep. Alan Wheat (D).
Freeman spent a respectable $458,000, but that was dwarfed by the $866,000 disbursed by then-state Rep. Karen McCarthy (D), who won the race by 14 points despite the huge Republican wave in the nation as a whole.
McCarthy is retiring after five terms at the end of the 108th Congress.
Republicans cite some electoral history of their own when making the case that Patterson merits watching.
Both Sen. Kit Bond (R-Mo.) in 2000 and then-Sen. John Ashcroft (R-Mo.) in his 1994 Senate race against Wheat carried the 5th district, which remains largely unchanged after redistricting, and the recent ballot measure to ban gay marriage passed in the district as well.
Independence, the state’s fourth largest city, is also in the 5th, and Patterson allies believe that their candidate can better appeal to the socially conservative Democrats who populate that area.
In the Democratic primary, Cleaver lost Jackson County, which includes Independence, by roughly 180 votes to Metzl. He also lost the portion of Cass County that is in the district but made up for it by taking nearly 26,000 more votes than Metzl in Kansas City.
Patterson, by contrast, took nearly 9,000 votes less than Cleaver in Jackson County and 41,000 less in Kansas City — figures that highlight the difficulty of her task.
The first-time candidate appears unbowed by the road ahead, however.
“What this campaign is about is giving voters a choice,” said Patterson. “It is about contrasting and telling the truth about what I’ve done and the things Mr. Cleaver has done.”