Graves facing formidable challenger in Barnes By SAM HANANEL, AP
WASHINGTON (Map, News) - Missouri Rep. Sam Graves has cruised to easy re-election victories since he was elected to Congress in 2000, building a powerful Republican political machine in the process.
But he's facing a formidable opponent next year in Democrat Kay Barnes, the former two-term mayor of Kansas City.
Barnes outpaced Graves by a wide margin in fundraising last quarter, and Democrats believe her popularity and name recognition give the party a solid chance at winning the seat.
It won't come without a fight. Graves, a farmer from Tarkio, already is labeling Barnes an urban liberal with little connection to the values and priorities of rural voters in the sprawling 6th Congressional District.
"The bottom line is she's a big-city mayor and her constituency is downtown Kansas City," Graves said in an interview. "Nobody pays attention to agriculture or rural concerns until they're running for office. She's a perfect example of that."
Barnes calls the charge nonsense, though she has spent much of the past three months trying to counter that image. She announced her candidacy standing in front of her mother's home in St. Joseph, the city where she was born and raised, and has made repeated trips to smaller communities north of Kansas City.
"I'm really enjoying getting out in the district and getting back in some parts where I spent time when I was growing up," Barnes said in an interview. "I have strong roots throughout much of the district, including rural portions."
Her focus in courting rural voters mirrors the successful strategy that brought victory to Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill last year. McCaskill spent hundreds of hours traveling in a rented RV to campaign in rural communities across the state, and defeated Republican Sen. Jim Talent by about 2 percentage points among voters in the 6th District.
McCaskill had lost the same district to Matt Blunt by double digits in the 2004 governor's race, when many believe she neglected the rural vote.
"We have a saying around here: 'You have to learn to speak farmer,'" said Alan Holiman, a political science professor at William Jewell College in Liberty, Mo. "You have to identify with those folks because they vote up there. Agriculture and farm concerns are a huge deal in that part of the state of Missouri."
McCaskill helped persuade Barnes to run for the seat and speaks with Barnes or her staff every few weeks about the campaign. McCaskill's former deputy finance director now works as Barnes' finance director, and McCaskill recently sent a letter to supporters encouraging them to back Barnes.
Barnes says she also hopes to take advantage of the friction between Graves and more-moderate Republicans like Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo., who earlier this year praised Barnes for her work revitalizing downtown Kansas City.
"There are divisions within the Republican party related to Graves," Barnes said. "I know already that I will garner some moderate Republican support in the race."
Graves scoffs at Barnes' rural strategy and he predicts she will have trouble connecting with rural voters. The Republican Party already has focused on Barnes' support for gay rights issues, including her support for resolutions that created domestic partnership benefits for gays and lesbians in Kansas City.
"She likes to talk about her roots in the rural areas, but she left that area in the Korean War," Graves said. "It's been a long time and there's been lots of changes since then."
Indeed, Graves has played a key role in turning the once Democratic-leaning district more conservative over the past six years. Democratic Rep. Pat Danner held the seat from 1993 until she retired in 2000. That was the year Graves eked out a narrow 51 percent victory over Danner's son, state Sen. Steve Danner.
At the time, most elected officials in the district were Democrats. Most are Republicans now, thanks to Graves' efforts in recruiting GOP candidates, offering strategic advice and helping raise money.
One reason for Graves' past success has been a fundraising prowess that helped scare away serious opponents. Graves raised more than $1 million to defeat Democrat Sara Jo Shettles in 2006, and more than $1.6 million to beat Democrat Charlie Broomfield in 2004.
If the last quarter is any indication, Barnes may be the best-funded opponent Graves has faced. She raised nearly $330,000 in just six weeks after declaring her candidacy May 14, while Graves pulled in about $248,000 during the entire quarter.
Graves dismisses Barnes' initial haul as "low-hanging fruit," but he has hired a professional fundraiser to help ramp up contributions.
"Graves has been really lucky in his opponents," Holiman said. "It's been very hard to entice a competitive candidate. Barnes is ambitious, has a decent record in Kansas City and won't have any problems with name recognition."
Graves has been a reliable conservative vote in Congress, with a focus on farm issues. He has been a firm supporter of the Iraq war and lately has spoken out strongly against Bush's immigration reform plan and in favor of increasing border security. Barnes often points out that Graves has voted with President Bush 94 percent of the time.
She says Graves hasn't focused enough on health care reform or questioning the Iraq war. Barnes is not ready to suggest a particular time frame for withdrawal, but says she agrees with Democrats that there should be more evidence of progress.
Graves spokesman Jason Klindt said a comparison of Graves' record with the White House's Statement of Administration Policy - where the president recommends how House members should vote - shows Graves has voted against the president 40 percent of the time this year. That policy statement reflects only a fraction of all House votes.
"They disagree on things like farm bill, immigration, vouchers and veterans care," Klindt said.