Oil spill takes center stage inland in Missouri Senate race

The political fallout from the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has made its way inland, taking center stage in Missouri's Senate race.

Republican candidate Rep. Roy Blunt and Democratic candidate Robin Carnahan, the Missouri secretary of state, have engaged in a verbal tug-of-war over the spill for weeks, accusing each other of distorting the facts, being too soft on BP and cozying up to the oil industry.

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The spill's starring role in the campaign, one of the most competitive in the country, underscores how the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico is scrambling races nationwide as it attracts a huge amount of national media coverage and attention from the Obama administration.

Political consultants aren't surprised that it's happening in Missouri, and they say the issue will resonate with voters -- even though the state lacks any sort of coastline and almost all of its power comes from coal.

"Whether it’s the failure of administration to take strong action, or whether it's BP's handling of situation, you can't turn on the news ... without seeing it," Republican political consultant Jim Gwinner said.

On Thursday, Carnahan backed a moratorium on new offshore oil drilling until more is learned about the cause of the spill. Blunt supports an expansion of offshore drilling.

"Robin supports offshore drilling as long as it is done in a safe and responsible way," Carnahan spokesman Linden Zakula told The Associated Press. But "she would not support an expansion until we get to the bottom of what happened in the Gulf."

Blunt’s campaign quickly responded, saying Carnahan's proposal would hurt the economy.

“Robin Carnahan’s plan for big cuts to domestic energy production would have a devastating impact on our economy with tens of thousands of lost jobs at a time of nearly 10 percent unemployment,” Blunt spokesperson Rich Chrismer said. “This plan will only increase our dependence on foreign oil from countries that hate the United States. If federal regulators find that any offshore drilling operation is putting workers and the environment at risk we ought to take action immediately. But shutting down all new drilling as Robin Carnahan has proposed is extreme.”

Adding fuel to the controversy is a video from the Carnahan campaign that claims Blunt wants to stick taxpayers with the cleanup costs.

When the nonpartisan Fact-Check.org released an article debunking the claims in the video, the Blunt campaign seized on it, accusing the Carnahan campaign of misrepresenting Blunt's views.

"We are calling on Robin Carnahan to apologize immediately, withdraw these statements, news releases and web videos that have been found to be patently false, and to discipline those responsible for that blatant misconduct," Chrismer said Wednesday.

In a statement Thursday night, Zakula accused the Blunt campaign of creating "a distraction by arguing over the definition of a cleanup because he still thinks there should be limits on oil companies’ liability — meaning taxpayers could still be on the hook for Big Oil’s mess.”

Blunt and Carnahan have also sparred over the broader topic of oil. Carnahan's campaign has continually gone on the attack, accusing Blunt of cozying up to the oil industry and taking large amounts of money from oil companies.

Democratic political consultant Mike Kelly argued that Blunt's vocal support of offshore drilling in the 2008 presidential campaign has contributed to oil's salience in the race.

"He led the charge for Sarah Palin and John McCain for 'Drill baby drill,' " said Kelly, former executive director of the Missouri Democratic Party.

An analysis by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics shows that Blunt has taken $133,000 from oil companies this election cycle, the sixth-highest amount among current members of Congress and the second highest amount among House members.

At a speech in St. Louis in mid-May, Blunt said that a hike in the liability cap for oil spills would not apply to the Gulf spill. He has since proposed legislation to raise the cap on economic liability to $150 million or four quarters of profit, whichever is higher, and it would apply retroactively to the Gulf oil spill.

BP would be on the hook for up to $20 billion, which Blunt spokesman Chrismer said is twice as high as Democrats' proposed new cap that Carnahan has supported. Carnahan's campaign has maintained that she supports no cap on liability and that any cap could leave taxpayers on the hook.

Still, despite Blunt's proposed liability hike, some environmentalists remain skeptical.

The League of Conservation Voters, which is targeting Blunt and 11 other members that it says have poor records on the environment as part of its "Dirty Dozen" campaign, said it plans to attack Blunt's record, despite his support of a liability cap hike.

"It's nice to see Blunt trying to finally do the right thing after years and years of cozying up to oil and gas industry, but we also don't think an election-year conversion will obviate the record he's compiled over several years in Congress," said Tony Massaro, senior vice president of LCV.