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DECISION 2000

Late Missouri Governor Wins Senate Seat

Campaign: Widow, Jean Carnahan, will serve in the post after narrow victory over incumbent Ashcroft.

November 08, 2000|STEPHANIE SIMON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ST. LOUIS — Missouri's late Democratic Gov. Mel Carnahan, killed in a plane crash three weeks ago, won election to the U.S. Senate early Wednesday in one of the oddest and most emotional races in political history.

Flags still flew at half-staff as Missouri voters went to the polls and gave him a narrow victory over incumbent Sen. John Ashcroft, a staunchly conservative Republican.

There was no time to remove Carnahan's name from the ballot after his death. And voters rallied around his candidacy when his widow, Jean, agreed to serve in his place should he win. If the victory is confirmed as the last votes are counted, Jean Carnahan will occupy the Senate seat until Missouri's next general election in 2002.

"There is so much in my heart tonight," Jean Carnahan said early Wednesday in a phone call to supporters from the family farm in rural Rolla, Mo. "Mel would have been so proud of you. You kept the faith. You have carried our hopes and dreams."

Although Ashcroft did not concede--and in fact, said through a spokesman that he would not make any public statements until Wednesday morning--Carnahan claimed victory on her husband's behalf. "For reasons we don't fully understand," she told the crowd, "the mantle has now fallen on us. On this night, let me pledge to you--or rather, let us pledge to each other: We will never let the fire go out."

Yet Republicans seemed determined to stoke some fires of their own, as they accused Democrats of vote fraud in St. Louis.

Voters in the heavily Democratic city had complained of huge lines, missing voter logs and tremendous confusion at polling stations. Some precincts turned hundreds of voters away because they did not show up on lists of registered residents. And when voters--or election monitors--tried to call the Board of Election Commissioners to clarify their status, they got only busy signals.

Democratic officials took those complaints to a city judge, who agreed to extend voting in the city for three hours, until 10 p.m. Republicans eventually got that order overturned and the polls shut down, but not before thousands of city voters cast ballots after the regular polling hours. His face scowled in fury, Republican Sen. Christopher S. Bond called for a criminal probe. "Democrats in the city of St. Louis are trying to steal this election," he thundered.

Even Mayor Clarence Harmon, a Democrat, agreed that the chaos could throw into doubt the results in tight races not only for senator but also for governor. "It brings into question the whole issue of whether we got an honest vote and an honest vote count."

Republicans may pursue other legal challenges as well. Party officials have mulled various tactics to contest the triumph of a dead man, including, perhaps, an assertion that Mel Carnahan could not legally run for the Senate because he is no longer a resident of Missouri.

Carnahan's apparent electoral triumph marked an astounding comeback for state Democrats, who had all but given up even contesting the seat after the governor's plane crashed Oct. 16 on the way to a campaign fund-raiser.

Yet within days, the mood shifted as it became clear Democratic voters wanted someone to carry on the legacy of Carnahan--a popular two-time governor with a bland manner but a reputation for straight-arrow integrity.

Maroon "I'm still with Mel" buttons began to pop up across the state. The Democratic Party mailed 750,000 letters signed by former Sen. Thomas Eagleton, urging voters to back Carnahan. And money--unsolicited--began to pour into the campaign, much of it from out of state.

Although too much in grief to mount a true campaign--she lost a son as well as her husband in the crash--Jean Carnahan did film a 60-second TV commercial promising to stay true to Mel's agenda.

Jean Carnahan's candidacy, and the swell of media attention it generated, put Ashcroft in a bind. He didn't want to attack a widow. (Indeed, he suspended campaigning for a week after the plane crash, a decision he later said might have cost him the election.) Instead, he stressed his own experience and crossed the state talking up his tax cut plan and commitment to education.

Meanwhile, Jean Carnahan's supporters put out the word that she had been a "full partner" throughout her husband's long years of public service, supporting such issues as abortion rights, gun control and better day-care.

As she voted Tuesday morning at the American Legion post in Rolla, looking close to tears, she said: "I believe in the things my husband stood for. [They] didn't die with him. They are still very much alive."

American voters never before have elected a dead candidate to the Senate, although they have three times backed a deceased candidate for the House of Representatives.

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