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SPECIAL REPORT / Decision 2000 / AMERICA WAITS

Sentiment Helped Fuel Posthumous Senate Win in Missouri

Volunteers flocked to emotional campaign for Mel Carnahan, who died Oct. 16. His widow will serve until 2002. Incumbent Ashcroft will not challenge result despite early GOP claims of voter fraud.

November 09, 2000|STEPHANIE SIMON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ST. LOUIS — The candidate was dead. But volunteers crowded his campaign office for a chance to stuff envelopes on his behalf. Dozens of people waited in line to grab seats on the floor and fold letters urging voters to back a dead man.

It was that kind of grass-roots loyalty--and sentiment--that pushed the late Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan to victory in a U.S. Senate race brimming with emotion.

Incumbent Sen. John Ashcroft, a Republican, conceded defeat Wednesday, saying that he would not challenge the result because he knows "what it is to take orders." His party had alleged voter fraud in this heavily Democratic city, but dropped plans to take the matter to court as it became clear the contested ballots would not affect the outcome of any race.

"The will of the people has been expressed," Ashcroft said.

Carnahan's widow, Jean, will accept appointment to the seat and will serve in the Senate until the 2002 election.

In his concession, Ashcroft suggested that sympathy for the grieving widow and mother had swung the race. Carnahan died with his son, Randy, 44, and a campaign aide, Chris Sifford, 37, in a plane crash Oct. 16.

Noting that he had been slightly ahead in the polls before Carnahan's death, Ashcroft said: "Missouri is a compassionate state. I think, in a very special way, voters have demonstrated their compassion."

But political analysts were not so quick to attribute the Carnahan victory to pity--or to kindness.

On the contrary, some argued that Carnahan's death drew fresh attention to the issues he had championed, such as abortion rights, gun control and health insurance for all children. A campaign that had sunk into a swirl of nasty ads and dull debates suddenly gained new energy.

"Ashcroft's brilliance had been to minimize his differences with Carnahan . . . and that really paralyzed a lot of independent voters," said Scott McClurg, a political science professor at Washington University. "The death crystallized the differences."

It also, apparently, energized the Democratic base. Though voter turnout did not hit a record, it was exceedingly strong, especially in the Democratic stronghold of St. Louis, where 77% of registered voters cast ballots.

The turnout was remarkable because Jean Carnahan did not campaign in a traditional sense. She held just one news conference, to announce her willingness to serve, and filmed just one TV commercial, a 60-second paean to her husband.

She did, however, provide a slogan: "Don't let the fire go out."

And volunteers turned that exhortation into a crusade.

Thousands of them, many new to political campaigns, stepped up in the last two weeks before the election to order posters, canvass door to door, make phone calls and pass on urgent e-mail pleas for funds. They sent out about 750,000 maroon buttons declaring: "I'm still With Mel."

"There was such a sense out there that we had to capitalize on the spontaneous outpouring of grief about Mel Carnahan and frustration about losing a choice in the election," said Harriett Woods, a former lieutenant governor. "I think a kind of Missouri stubbornness came out in that we wanted our votes to count."

As soft-spoken and unassuming as her husband, Jean Carnahan didn't have much of a record to hold before voters. She had long worked on child welfare issues but was known mostly as a wife and mother. Nor did her writings offer much insight: One of her books was a history of Missouri's first families and another focused on decorating the governor's mansion for Christmas.

Yet Carnahan, 66, assured voters that she shared her husband's values. And friends described her as a full partner in her husband's long career of public service. She was praised as a savvy organizer, a charming speaker, a down-to-earth woman who didn't shrink from grunt work.

That, apparently, was enough for many voters.

Carnahan won the Senate seat by 49,000 ballots, or 50.4% to Ashcroft's 48.4%. (Another Carnahan son, Russ, also scored a victory, easily winning a seat in the state House of Representatives.)

At the Democratic victory party early Wednesday--where tears mingled with cheers--speaker after speaker expressed pride that Carnahan's agenda would survive him.

A political cartoon in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reflected that spirit. In a twist on the "I'm Still With Mel" buttons that popped up everywhere as the election neared, the cartoon showed the late governor's smiling face, a halo over his head. On his lapel, this button: "I'm Still With Missouri."

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