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Cultural issues such as abortion a bit tenuous in Mo. Senate race

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (BP)–In the weeks since Mel Carnahan, the governor of Missouri and Democratic U.S. Senate candidate, died in a plane crash Oct. 16, the flame of his candidacy still burns bright among those who believe in his ideals.

If Carnahan is the top vote-getter on election day, acting Missouri Gov. Roger Wilson has announced he will ask Jean Carnahan, the late governor’s widow, to fill the Senate seat for two years. On Oct. 30, Jean Carnahan announced she will accept an appointment to the Senate.

Forty-four women have succeeded their spouses in similar situations since 1923. Seven served in the Senate between 1940 and 1973. Carnahan’s case is unique, however, in that it does not involve the widow of an incumbent politician, but instead pits incumbent U.S. Sen. John Ashcroft against the widow of a candidate.

Carnahan, 66, was a member of First Baptist Church of Rolla. Ashcroft is an ordained Assemblies of God preacher. Both have been touted as pro-family, pro-education candidates. Ashcroft, Carnahan’s predecessor, was rated as one of the top 10 educator governors by Fortune magazine during his time in office, while Carnahan supporters have credited him with passing key measures benefiting education in Missouri.

Carnahan, his son, Randy, who was flying the plane, and Chris Sifford, a top aide to the governor, were killed when the plane, battling bad weather, crashed into the deep woods in Jefferson County south of St. Louis.

In the wake of Carnahan’s death, the deceased candidate has shot ahead of Ashcroft in the Senate race. The Kansas City Star, for example, reported that Democratic and Republican polls showed Carnahan leading Ashcroft by 5 to 12 percentage points during the latter half of October.

That jump could be attributed to widespread sympathy throughout the state. As the election approaches, Democrats face the problem of convincing people to vote for a candidate who is no longer alive, while Republicans are concerned that in a rush to sympathy many voters may forget Carnahan’s actions earlier this decade when he vetoed a ban against partial-birth abortion passed by the state legislature.

Earlier this year at the Democratic Convention in Los Angeles, platform speakers made clear their support of abortion on demand and accommodation of homosexuality. The Republicans at their convention in Philadelphia denounced partial-birth abortion and spoke in support of legislation to clarify the 14th Amendment’s protection to unborn children.

In an Oct. 26 article in Word & Way, the state Baptist newsjournal, state Rep. Gracie Backer, D.-New Bloomfield, lauded Carnahan for his initiatives related to education and health care and also referred to those who are disgruntled with his stand on partial-birth abortion. “It’s sad that the abortion issue overshadowed and clouded all the wonderful things this man has done for children,” Backer said in the article.

Ashcroft, who for eight days delayed his campaign out of respect to Carnahan’s death, said in an Oct. 27 USA Today article he was ready to talk about issues. “I’m not running against anybody,” Ashcroft said in the article. “I’ve gone across the state of Missouri the past couple days and people want me to talk about issues.”

Political analysts credit Ashcroft with keeping a low profile by volunteering at homeless shelters and food pantries while Carnahan supporters began distributing bumper stickers and buttons reading, “Still for Mel,” and “Don’t let the fire go out.” Ashcroft resumed airing commercials talking about the importance of families and values during the week of Oct. 27.

Jean Carnahan earned the praise of Democratic vice presidential hopeful Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, who campaigned in St. Louis Nov. 2. In a Kansas City Star report Nov. 3, Lieberman said he has been “moved” by Jean Carnahan’s willingness to “go on and carry on Mel’s legacy.”

In A USA Today article Oct. 25, Jennifer Duffy, who analyzes Senate races for the political newsletter the Cook Report, suggested the race between Carnahan and Ashcroft may have more to do with garnering voter turnout in support of Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore for the state’s 11 electoral votes than about the issues facing Missouri voters.

Jeff Smith, who teaches political science at Washington University in St. Louis, said in the same article that Ashcroft is a strong conservative whose outspoken views are not popular with moderates and liberals. The “antipathy” toward Ashcroft may express itself in the urban areas of the state where more voters traditionally turn out, Smith said.
O’Conner is a senior journalism student at Platte County R-3 High School in Platte City, Mo. O’Conner is joined by his teacher Joni B. Hannigan, whose high school journalism class is working on a special project for Baptist Press related to the Senate race in Missouri.

    About the Author

  • Chris J. O'Conner