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.