The plane crash that took the life of Missouri Governor Mel Carnahan on October 16 appears to have been a disaster for the Democrats, not only in the Show Me state but nationally. “It means we lose any chance of winning the Senate,” laments Russell Hemenway, who runs the National Committee for an Effective Congress (NCEC), the nation’s oldest and most effective liberal PAC. Here’s why:
Carnahan was running against GOP Senator John Ashcroft, one of the four Republican incumbents rated as highly vulnerable (the others: Minnesota’s Rod Grams, Delaware’s Bill Roth and Washington’s Slade Gorton). The NCEC expects Democratic losses in Virginia–incumbent Chuck Robb–and Nevada, which has an open Democratic seat. Even if the Democrats hold on to their open seats in New Jersey (a lock), New York and Nebraska (less certain) and pick up the open GOP seat in Florida, without Carnahan that means “we lose two and pick up four, max,” Hemenway says. Should Joe Lieberman be elevated to the vice presidency, Connecticut’s Republican governor would fill his vacancy–probably with popular GOP moderate Congressman Chris Shays, who’ll be hard to dislodge–further reducing the chances of a Democratic majority.
Carnahan was, by all accounts, a pretty straight shooter as politicians go. A Southern Baptist from a small rural town, he was a relentlessly driven officeseeker as he climbed the greasy pole to the Statehouse but not overly gluttonous of publicity once in power, an effective administrator and a cautious centrist–but with flashes of heart. He picked his fights carefully, vetoing a ban on “partial birth” abortions (a veto that the Democratic-controlled legislature, including many Dixiecrats, overrode) and leading a successful campaign to defeat an NRA-backed referendum to permit the carrying of concealed handguns. But Carnahan walked away from this year’s Fair Elections referendum to provide 100 percent public funding on the Maine model (while raking in nearly as much soft money for his Senate campaign as Ashcroft). And he refused to meet with representatives of the gay community for most of his tenure as governor.
Ashcroft, on the other hand, is a hard-core cultural and political conservative from Springfield, in the southwestern part of the state (known as the Buckle of the Bible Belt). His father was president of Evangel University there, run by the Assemblies of God, a pentecostal sect known as “holy rollers” for their practice of writhing on the floor while speaking in tongues. A popular governor before becoming senator, Ashcroft was so straitlaced that he banned liquor and dancing from the Statehouse. In 1997 Ashcroft tried to parlay his religiosity into a presidential candidacy, positioning himself as the candidate of the religious right. “He really damaged himself here, because in running for President, he showed just how extremist he really is,” says Grant Williams of the state’s Service Employees International Union. In a state with 350,000 union members and a rich labor history, Ashcroft has a viciously antilabor record: As governor he tried to pass a right-to-work referendum, and as senator he sponsored a bill that would have gutted the Fair Labor Standards Act by permitting employers to work their wage slaves sixty hours a week with no overtime pay. The darling of business lobbies, Ashcroft has been a master of the cash-for-votes trade: For example, he sponsored legislation to extend for five years the patent on the anti-allergy drug Claritin–a measure worth billions in profits to its maker, Schering-Plough–and two months later pocketed a $50,000 campaign contribution from the company, which earned him a tart St. Louis Post-Dispatch editorial branding him “the Senator from Claritin.” All this, plus Carnahan’s popularity as governor, had made the Senate race a dead heat.
But with Ashcroft now unopposed by a live candidate (it’s too late to get Carnahan’s name off the ballot), Democrats are scared to death about turnout. To counter the GOP’s expected majorities in rural Missouri, especially in the southwest, they’d been counting not only on energized union voters but on a better-than-usual black vote. Ashcroft is perceived, as a leading black state legislator, Rita Days, puts it, “as a racist.” Ashcroft led the Senate fight against confirmation for a federal judgeship of Ronnie White, the first African-American member of the state’s Supreme Court. In his abortive presidential campaign Ashcroft gave an interview to the neo-Confederate magazine Southern Partisan, praising “Southern patriots” like Jefferson Davis and Stonewall Jackson and adding, “We’ve all got to stand up and speak in [defense of their memories] or else we’ll be taught that these people were giving their lives, subscribing their sacred fortunes and their honor to some perverted agenda.” Last May, he gave the commencement address at and received an honorary degree from Bob Jones University.
But with no possibility of defeating Ashcroft, there’s not much to motivate an expanded black turnout. The Democrats have a white-bread ticket for other statewide offices, headed by gubernatorial candidate Bob Holden, the state treasurer, a centrist with a charisma bypass and little visibility in the black community.
Even before Carnahan’s death, senior Democrats were describing the party’s get-out-the-vote drive as “OK, but not great.” Toby Paone, a veteran political op who now works for the state’s NEA, explains: “We’ve been in power eight years–we’ve gotten too comfortable, there’s some apathy. And don’t forget that Carnahan had virtually no race four years ago.” The liberal former mayor of St. Louis, Vince Schoemehl, says, “Carnahan was the Democrats’ firewall–he was going to run 3-4 points ahead of Gore, and Democrats do better downticket when people start splitting their ticket at the top.” With Carnahan out, the Democrats could even lose one or both houses of the state legislature, where their majorities are slim (two in the Senate, seven in the House), endangering the party’s control over future redistricting.
Moreover, says a veteran Democratic politician, “here the party apparatus is controlled by the governor–they’re all Carnahan’s people. Now they’ve lost their leader, they’re in mourning, discombobulated.” Magnifying this body blow to the party’s campaign just three weeks before the election was Gore’s aggressive performance in the St. Louis presidential debate. Even though Carnahan and Ashcroft despised each other, in their one televised debate just one day before the plane crash they were very gentlemanly. “I just don’t think Gore’s debate performance played well at all with Missourians,” opines State Representative Steve McKluckie, a leader of the legislature’s progressive caucus.
Carnahan was the motor driving the Democrats’ Missouri campaign. With that motor now silenced, Gore, too, has much to worry about. And Missouri has voted for the winner in every presidential election this century save one.