For a guy who has just won the biggest political victory of his life, Jim Talent is a little agitated on this first Sunday since Missouri voters elected him senator. It's a warmer-than-usual November morning and he's briskly navigating the back stairs of his church and heading to the parking lot to retrieve the cell phone he'd left in his Ford Escape.
Their three kids safely deposited in their Sunday school rooms, Sen.-elect Talent and wife, Brenda, are awaiting the arrival of a friend they'd invited to church. Mr. Talent believes that his guest is lost. Well, not that kind of lost. She's a new convert, a young lady who helped in the campaign and is eager to visit the Talents' Presbyterian Church in America congregation in west St. Louis County. Sure enough, she had called. He presses the phone to his ear, squeezes the other ear shut, and calls her back.
"Hi, it's Jim," he says, and walks her through detailed directions. "Brenda will meet you upstairs."
He bounds back up the stairs and through the crowded halls, receiving assorted congratulations and greetings. Toward the front entrance, he spies Todd Akin, the congressman who filled the seat he vacated in 2000 for an unsuccessful bid for governor. Rep. Akin had won his first reelection, by a large margin.
"Hey, Jim," calls a smiling Mr. Akin.
Mr. Talent responds, "Congratulations, brother!" and the two Republican colleagues' embrace ends in a hearty series of back pats. "Big win!" he says of Mr. Akin's landslide. "Huge win, huge!"
"But I'm so thankful you won, too," says one woman in the conversational huddle. "We prayed and prayed."
"Thank you. Keep praying," Mr. Talent urges. "The hard work starts now. People are going to expect us all to produce, right, Todd?"
They are. But Jim Talent is not just another Republican senator from Missouri. With his Nov. 5 victory, officially declared several hours before the GOP victory in Minnesota that sent Norm Coleman to the Senate, he's the man who made the majority. A Republican ouster of a Democratic incumbent in Georgia followed by the Democratic pickup in Arkansas kept the score tied before the Talent victory put the GOP over the top.
The Republican sweep was not just another political victory. It was the first time in almost 70 years that the party of a president in his first term enjoyed gains in both houses of Congress. And the only time since 1860 that the president's party reclaimed total congressional control at the first midterm.
Political opponents might try to paint Jim Talent as an extremist from the religious right, but it's his biblical worldview that softens for the watching public the perceived harder edges of the Republican agenda he embraces. He's into racial reconciliation and compassionate conservatism. During his first term (of four) as a U.S. congressman from St. Louis County, he introduced the welfare-reform bill of 1994-not exactly the soccer mom-type concerns typical of politicians representing the 'burbs.
"I have a heart for reaching out, for reconciliation, for pulling people together, and particularly in the minority communities. I enjoyed enormously campaigning there. We still haven't been able to evaluate how big an actual impact it had on the election, but I am going to continue doing it," Mr. Talent says. "Think what a senator does for your average middle-class person of whatever color or background in St. Louis County.... It's stuff that's important, but it's not central.
"When HUD [the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development] is trying to take away the contract from a tenant management group, it means everything to the people in that housing project. They are just more vulnerable, and if their representatives don't fight for them, nobody does. They also often live in circumstances where they are being exploited, and in some cases by a political machine, and they need people who will fight for them. I have just been next to many of them and talked to too many folks in that situation, so I am eager to represent that community. What I mean is the urban core community, people who feel vulnerable. I want to try and help."
That's not the kind of talk that thrills those religious conservatives in the state who would prefer a lightning-rod leader willing to take a more confrontational approach to serious social problems. Mr. Talent kept his distance from hot-button issues like abortion, and instead stressed things like his opposition to Social Security privatization. In his campaign he talked about a prescription-drug benefit for seniors-though not the big one Democrats touted-and said he would be "Missouri's health care senator." Even Mr. Talent's pastor, Rodney Stortz, said he heard complaints that "Jim did not do enough to energize conservative evangelicals."
Not that Rev. Stortz is complaining. And not that Jim Talent isn't supportive of issues important to his brethren-social-conservative staples like educational choice, pro-life legislation, and resisting the gay political agenda-or that he doesn't want the president's conservative judicial nominees confirmed; he is and he does. But here's a typical answer to questions about the likelihood of banning partial-birth abortion and human cloning: "Since we now have leadership that is favorable to the whole agenda of protecting life, I hope we will step back and ask ourselves, 'What is the best way of doing that right now?' And then pursue those in a respectful way, in a way where we listen to the other side, where we seek as broad a coalition as we can, but we keep moving forward."
The Talent political style is to make no mistakes. His Senate campaign was seen almost universally as flawless. As a senator, there will be no shooting from the hip, no hot rhetoric. He will cautiously seek consensus where possible, and on difficult-to-compromise issues, that style is likely to grate on social-conservative activists and voters.
He is careful when discussing how the Bible informs his politics. Asked the question directly, Mr. Talent demurs that his conservative political philosophy was formed before he met Christ and his core views of limited government haven't changed much since. He's a product of the economically libertarian University of Chicago law school, from which he graduated with honors in 1981. Mr. Talent, reared in a Jewish family, turned to Christ while listening to a Focus on the Family program on the radio. Host James Dobson's guest that day was internationally known evangelist Luis Palau, who ended his talk with an invitation for listeners to a prayer of repentance. Jim Talent pulled the car to the side of the road and prayed along with Rev. Palau.
Mr. Talent joined Covenant Presbyterian Church in St. Louis, worshipped there regularly, and sat under the teaching of Rodney Stortz. He worked through the ranks of the Missouri state legislature-he ascended to House minority leader-before a successful run for the U.S. Congress in 1992. He never had trouble with reelection until he vacated the seat to run for Missouri governor in 2000.
That race he would lose. Mr. Talent could have become bitter and cynical coming off that narrow defeat. His loss came under dubious circumstances: Evidence of voter fraud in the heavily Democratic, African-American precincts of the city of St. Louis-where polls were kept open late into the evening, hours past closing time-had Republicans demanding a federal probe. Even the left-wing newspaper in the city carried stories of fraudulent voter registrations; in one case the paper cited, a dog was registered to vote. A liberal columnist for the paper actually referred to the statewide elections as "stolen" and expressed surprise that George W. Bush was able to carry the state despite the cheating.
After that defeat, private citizen Talent turned to Pastor Stortz; both in 1990 had moved from Covenant to a new church Covenant planted, Twin Oaks. "I said, 'Let's use your spare time to study and learn,'" Rev. Stortz recalls. "I trained him in theology and evangelism." He says they met weekly with very few exceptions for a year, in addition to the Tuesday night evangelism training program called Evangelism Explosion. "People were a little surprised seeing this man who had run for governor knocking on their door" to pay them an evangelistic visit on behalf of a church. "He led people to Christ," Rev. Stortz says. "He's always talking about people he'd had an opportunity to share his faith with."
The 2000 election cycle also saw John Ashcroft swept out of the Senate not only by probable vote fraud but by sympathy votes for his opponent, Democrat Mel Carnahan, who died in a plane crash with just weeks to go in the campaign. A majority of voters selected him posthumously and, in a legally questionable move, the Democratic governor appointed his widow, Jean Carnahan, to the seat. Republicans likely could have successfully challenged the process in court, but Mr. Ashcroft was much too gentlemanly to have anything to do with it. He shut down his campaign and accepted the result.
Jim Talent will say only "it's possible, I guess" he was robbed in 2000, but here his theological training becomes evident: He turns to the reality of providence. "I do believe that God governs in the affairs of men in that He raises up whom He wants to raise up, and He humbles whom He wants to humble," he says. "That doesn't mean you sit there listlessly and wait for God to do something. Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart as working for the Lord and not for men. But the final decision is in His hands. So I never thought of it that way and, as a factual matter, I don't believe that whatever went on in the city was enough to have made a difference in my race."
The context of that question was a discussion of the late-night scare he received when Sen. Carnahan-who trailed most of the evening-announced that urban votes were pouring in and the tide seemed to be turning. At the Talent election-night headquarters, where supporters expected a concession speech from Mrs. Carnahan, there was a sense of deja vu from 2000 when an 11 p.m. surge swamped the Republican. But this time the lead held and CNN switched live to Mrs. Carnahan's early Wednesday morning concession. Said anchor Aaron Brown, "That seals the deal.... Now we can say [the Republicans] have taken control of the Senate." Mr. Talent wound up with a 30,000-vote victory-not a squeaker, but not a landslide.
"Relief" was the word Mr. Talent used to describe his election-night feelings: "I did not want to let people down another time. When you run for office in a high-visibility office like this, there are literally thousands and thousands of people working for you and praying for you and wanting you to win.... You have a sense of how many people are disappointed if you don't do it."
That is Jim Talent's emphasis: It's not about him; it's about the "tremendous sacrifice" others make on his behalf in time and treasure. If he has an ego problem at all, it's maybe that he has an ego about not wanting to be perceived as egotistical: "I don't want anyone out there to think that he thinks he's God's gift to people. That's not what I'm saying." He says his Christian calling is politics and governing as a vocation, which means he has to rely for support on those who have other callings in life. "That's why I'm consistently humbled when people give something," he emphasizes. "I have had people who on a volunteer basis have spent hundreds and hundreds of hours."
In the choir room of Twin Oaks church, Mr. Talent refills his Styrofoam coffee cup, which has developed a small hole in the bottom. As hot java drizzles onto the tile floor, he quickly dumps the remaining coffee into a sturdier new cup. He drops the compromised cup into the trash and nabs a fistful of napkins, takes a knee, and mops the mess. He's dealt with other messes around the church: Nursery coordinator Kathy Hartmann recalls a Christmas Eve service when she, Mr. Talent, and another volunteer took care of the infants. "Christmas Eve is the hardest time to find volunteers," Mrs. Hartmann says. Did Jim Talent change diapers? "Oh, yes," she said without hesitation. "That's the kind of guy he is."
Thinking providentially, it's easy now to see how it's good for President Bush and the Republicans that Mr. Talent and Mr. Ashcroft lost in 2000. Now the U.S. attorney general, John Ashcroft-an experienced, trusted GOP elder statesman-is the point man for TeamBush in the domestic war on terrorism. Mr. Talent's loss of the governorship freed him to win back the majority for President Bush in the Senate; his experience shepherding welfare reform through the House could make him a player in the coming debate over the president's stalled faith-based initiative.
"Welfare reform has to be what they call reauthorized, which means repassed, reenacted, and they should have done it last year, but it was one of the many things that the Senate was unable to do. So now I will be in the Senate that considers welfare reauthorization. Of course, I have a big interest in that, and I want to not only not retreat from the work provisions in it, but it's so very, very important that we move ahead in encouraging marriage through the welfare system. And also I would say encourage people to consider adoptions as alternatives to out-of-wedlock births. What we've found with the last welfare bill is that when you move the system towards encouraging the right thing-good values-it has this enormously beneficial impact. If we can make the whole system work pro-marriage, the impact around the country could be tremendous. It's as simple as saying that as a young woman comes in to register for Medicaid, she's pregnant, while giving her the range of services we are encouraging her, nurturing her, saying to her what's the situation with the father? Have you guys talked about getting married? What are the obstacles? Let's talk about this because in many cases that really is an alternative and it's just not considered."
What about Jim Talent's own home life? He's not moving his family to the Washington area-as many senators do-and he plans to commute weekly to the Capitol so as not to "uproot their whole lives": church, school, friends, and family. "I think it would be foolish to move them there and for me to be here [in St. Louis] more than half the time anyway." He did the same thing for eight years in the House, but his kids are bigger now, and busier: Michael is 12, Kate 10, and Chrissy 6. He will guard his family time and "just stay close to the Lord.... I love the 103rd psalm, which says He knows how we are formed, He remembers that we are dust. God is so forgiving to us. He knows our weaknesses, and from everlasting to everlasting the Lord's love is with those who fear Him and His righteousness for their children's children. That is a great, great psalm."