Bond retirement gives Dems opportunity

After four decades in public life, Sen. Kit Bond (R-Mo.) told state legislators Thursday he would not seek a fifth term in 2010, sparking expectations of a hotly contested race in one of the nation’s most reliable political bellwether states.

Addressing the Missouri General Assembly in Jefferson City, Bond said that while he had become the state’s youngest-ever governor in 1972, “I have no aspiration of becoming Missouri’s oldest senator.”

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Bond, 69, would be just shy of his 78th birthday by the end of another term, had he decided to serve an additional six years.

“I do not plan to retire, because there are so many interesting and challenging things left to do. I am only retiring from elective office after the 2010 election,” Bond said. He added that he was making his intentions clear so early in order “to make way for one of many qualified Missouri leaders to take the baton and continue forward.”

Bond’s open seat gives Democrats the chance to continue on offense after two consecutive cycles of gains in the Senate. Missouri is one of the most evenly divided states in the nation, continually producing the closest of contests on several levels.

In 2006, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D) defeated then-Sen. Jim Talent (R) by three points, or just under 50,000 votes out of more than 2 million cast. In the 2008 presidential race, GOP nominee John McCain beat President-elect Obama in the state by fewer than 4,000 votes out of the nearly 3 million cast. The race was so close that Missouri was not called for McCain until days after the election.

The state’s other Senate seat could indicate just how contentious the race to replace Bond may become.

In the course of six years, the seat was held by Republican John Ashcroft, Democrat Jean Carnahan, Talent and McCaskill.

Bond, however, always won reelection with more than 50 percent of the vote. And his early retirement announcement gives candidates plenty of time to fundraise and campaign.

Leading the Democratic field is Missouri Secretary of State Robin Carnahan, daughter of the late Gov. Mel Carnahan and former Sen. Carnahan. In winning her second term in November, Robin Carnahan took more votes than any other statewide elected official, and a poll conducted for Daily Kos between Dec. 2 and Dec. 4 showed her trailing Bond in a hypothetical match-up by just four points.

Carnahan issued a statement Thursday afternoon thanking Bond for his service, which she said “displayed a commitment to Missouri and its people that exemplifies a deep love and respect for our state and to the importance of public service.”

Separately, a source close to Carnahan said she will “almost certainly” announce her candidacy for the seat, and though no timeline had been nailed down, the source characterized it as the “near future.”

The Republican field is far more crowded. Reps. Jo Ann Emerson, Sam Graves and Roy Blunt are all said to be considering a run. Talent; former Rep. Kenny Hulshof, who lost a bid for governor in 2008; and state Treasurer Sarah Steelman, who lost to Hulshof in the primary, may also jump in the race.

Talent released a statement Thursday afternoon praising Bond. “This announcement is a stunning blow to me and to all of us who admire Kit Bond as a statesman and who regard him as a friend,” Talent said.

“His service to our state over the last 40 years has improved the lives of Missourians, and all Americans, in more ways than can be counted. We have better schools, greater opportunity, and a safer and stronger country because of Kit Bond’s public service.”

{mospagebreak}A source with knowledge of Blunt’s decisionmaking process said the former House minority whip is “seriously considering” running for Bond’s seat. Blunt has said he wanted a new role after his recent voluntary departure from the House leadership position.

Emerson’s office refused to comment on her future plans, instead issuing a statement praising Bond.

“Today is a day to recognize Kit Bond for his many achievements as a champion for Missouri,” Emerson said.

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In his own statement, Graves echoed the laudatory comments and refused to discuss his own plans.

Steelman told The Hill she would be considering a run, and that she won’t be alone. “I’m sure everyone who’s ever run for office is going to be thinking about running for the U.S. Senate,” the outgoing treasurer said. “I’m just going to watch and see what happens the next couple of weeks.”

Steelman said she has had differences of opinion with Bond and the rest of the congressional delegation, especially on earmarks and spending. “People are sick of the way Washington is run,” Steelman said.

Though Democrats will move Missouri to the head of the target list for 2010, Republicans said they would be ready.

“Even before Sen. Bond’s decision, Republicans have been preparing for a very competitive 2010 race. We have a number of qualified candidates to carry forward the Republican vision of low taxes, fiscal responsibility, healthcare modernization and traditional values,” National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn (R-Texas) said in a statement. “I am confident our message will resonate with the voters of Missouri in 2010.”

A senior GOP aide said Bond would have faced a tough match-up with Carnahan even if he had made another bid, and praised Bond as “commendable” for announcing his decision so early. “It’s a good thing this is all getting out now, though, and not six months from now,” the aide said.

After a spate of retirements cost Republicans three open seats during the 2008 elections, the GOP has already seen three senators bow out of reelection bids in 2010. Bond joins Sens. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.) and Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), all of whom have said they will not run next year.

“Three days into the 2009 session, Republicans have already lost their favored candidates,” Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesman Matt Miller said Thursday, referring to Bond and to former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s (R) decision not to run for Martinez’s seat.

“After losing 14 seats in the last two cycles, it’s clear that the Senate Republican caucus is not a very happy place to be,” he added.

Aaron Blake contributed to this article.