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The Missouri Breaks

Gloves Already Off in Graves-Barnes Contest

TARKIO, Mo. — Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.) believes in overwhelming firepower.

The four-term Congressman, whose family has farmed in northwest Missouri’s Atchison County for six generations, shuttles around his hometown in his truck, accompanied by a high-powered rifle usually used to hunt large game.

Bullet boxes litter his front seat.

“You catch a coyote out there messing with a calf?” Graves later said. “And you got to do what you got to do.”

With the first major challenge of his Congressional career now locked and loaded, Graves already is standing sentry, hurriedly warding off his first major political menace, popular former Kansas City Mayor Kay Barnes (D).

Graves, who has faced only nominal challenges since his 2000 defeat of Steve Danner (D), son of retired Rep. Pat Danner (D), has again enlisted a controversial local political consultant and is betting conservative district voters, shocked by what he hopes they will perceive as Barnes’ liberal stances, will drive GOP turnout and push the incumbent over the hump.

More than one year out, the first blood already is dribbled along the campaign trail, particularly in the district’s rural northern environs bordering Iowa and Nebraska, Graves’ home turf. He routinely captures 60 percent or more of the vote in the district’s rural northern counties. And many speculate that Barnes, whose famous family was from the Pony Express’ birthplace in St. Joseph, an hour north of Kansas City, must attract at least 40 percent of rural voters to win.

“A group of people who tend to vote for incumbents, but from time to time they will switch [parties],” David McLaughlin, a political science professor at Northwest Missouri State University, said, describing the district’s voters. “[Barnes] does have St. Joseph roots and she’s related to Walter Cronkite. To sell people up here, she’s going to have to cast herself as a St. Joseph person and not a Kansas City person.”

“She’ll probably do pretty well,” he added. “Like all Democrats, she’ll have some success running against [President] Bush.”

Playing to Type

So far both candidates appear to be reading from McLaughlin’s script. Barnes continually attempts to portray Graves as an administration acolyte, a neoconservative true believer out of touch with the swing-district’s more pragmatic electorate. The Barnes camp emphasizes that district voters narrowly chose now-Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) over then-Sen. Jim Talent (R-Mo.) in last year’s Senate barnburner. District voters, too, overwhelmingly picked State Auditor Susan Montee (D) and voted for a controversial stem-cell ballot initiative by more than 5 points.

“Sam has demonstrated his loyalty to Bush,” Barnes said in an interview.

Barnes also disagrees with Graves’ read of the of the district’s suburban and rural counties. Graves downplays widespread disapproval nationwide of the White House’s handling of the Iraq War. Unlike most Congressional districts, Graves argues he has the right formula — by not budging — claiming that his constituents rank the progress of the war behind immigration, budget concerns and health care in overall importance.

If Graves had his druthers, no immigrants would be allowed to enter the United States until all 10 million-plus undocumented workers are deported, a stance he said shows his independence from Bush.

And he’s betting most district voters agree.

“Immigration probably is the No. 1 issue,” Graves said. “[Congress should] shut down the immigration system until we get a better system … it’s like if someone breaks into my house and asks for amnesty.”

“I get the luxury of being very parochial,” Graves continued. “The president is carrying the banner for a party, I get to just represent my 26-and-one-half counties. I can be very precise about how I represent it.”

For now Barnes remains somewhat vague on immigration, a complicated issue she says her opponent distills down into a campaign slogan to polarize district voters.

“Border security has to be tightened,” Barnes said, “[and] going after employers who are knowingly hiring illegal immigrants.”

Although Graves claims he runs like he’s the only one in the race, early indications suggest that he is staking his re-election hopes on savaging Barnes on gays, guns and other social issues — and according to Democrats, resorting at times to unsavory tactics dreamed up by local GOP political pit bull Jeff Roe.

Roe is Graves’ former chief of staff. He now runs a political consulting business in Kansas City and is the primary architect of Graves’ re-election.

Roe’s controversial campaign tactics are the stuff of political legend in Missouri. One Kansas City news report from 2004 referred to Roe and Graves’ other campaign staff as a “Goon Squad.”

During this past Saturday’s Northwest Missouri University homecoming festivities, copies of a magazine targeted at Kansas City’s gay community showing the former mayor gracing the cover were distributed to parade-goers. The leaflet did not include a disclosure statement from any campaign, or reveal who had been distributing it.

‘They Would Go Through My Trash’

Teresa Loar, who lost to Graves in the 2000 Republican primary, has cautionary tales for Barnes on dealing with Graves’ reputed henchman. In 1999 Loar said she was recruited by the National Republican Congressional Committee to challenge Danner, a well-liked conservative Democrat. But she said that when Danner stepped aside late in the election cycle, giving new candidates an opportunity to run for the seat, GOP higher-ups sent her packing.

Now-Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and former Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), she said, called her personally and ordered her to make way for Graves.

“They wanted a nice conservative white male, which they found with Sam Graves,” she said.

When she didn’t step aside, Loar said “Jeff Roe and Company” sunk their teeth in.

“They would go through my trash, sit outside my office, they followed me everywhere,” Loar said. “They would take my picture, get in my face — almost accosting us.”

Graves’ office denied that the homecoming leaflets originated from his campaign. But while touring his vast district last week, Graves summed up his opponent’s liabilities.

“In a district like this, partial-birth abortion doesn’t sell, amnesty doesn’t sell, higher taxes don’t sell in a district like this,” he said. “She’s very much a Pelosi-type person — she’s going to be frustrated because [the 6th district is] not like San Francisco.”

‘Typically, Losers Whine’

McLaughlin speculated that tactics used by Roe, who once was his student at Northwest Missouri State, could come to haunt Graves by wearing on voters. Roe is said to have angered Sen. Kit Bond (R-Mo.) and an ongoing feud between Bond and Graves’ offices is thought to have originated with Roe’s treatment of a Bond-groomed candidate.

“Most people find his tactics repugnant and in a race that could be close, it could become an issue in this campaign,” McLaughlin said, who conceded that he has “made the mistake in the past of underestimating” Roe.

In an interview Tuesday, Roe defended his gloves-off approach and said “typically, losers whine.” He also said that the homecoming leaflet did not originate from his office, but said “this campaign will be waged aggressively.”

“They would rather blame it on a bogeyman than the fact that voters reject their issues,” Roe said. “Congressmen are elected on what they believe and [voters] want to send someone who represents [their] interests to Washington; that would vote the way that [they] would vote.”

He added: “I hope that everyone in the district has a copy of the gay magazine. If I could put that in the hands of every voter, I would.”

Roe also took his former professor to task. McLaughlin and Roe, too, have a long-standing feud going back to the political consultant’s college days. Roe once wrote a scathing column in the campus newspaper criticizing McLaughlin for “fraternizing with students at bars” and showing preferential treatment to those who bellied up.

“It’s affected their grades,” Roe said in the interview. “[McLaughlin’s] a menace to society and a good statement for tenure.”