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Deceased pro-choice Mo. governor defeats pro-life incumbent Ashcroft

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (BP)–In one of the most unusual political campaigns in American history, Missouri’s deceased governor and Democratic Senate nominee Mel Carnahan won 49 percent of the vote to defeat Republican Sen. John Ashcroft.

Carnahan, his son, Randy, and Chris Sifford, a top aide for the governor, were killed when their plane crashed Oct. 17 south of St. Louis.

Carnahan’s wife, Jean, has agreed to be appointed by the state’s acting governor, Roger Wilson, a Democrat, to serve two years in place of her husband.

Ashcroft, an active member of an Assemblies of God church and son of an ordained Assemblies minister, garnered support from across much of the state. However, he failed to win key urban areas such as St. Louis and Kansas City.

Ashcroft, who held the Senate seat for one term, is a pro-life, pro-family Republican who during his terms as governor was instrumental in ending taxpayer money being used to pay for abortions.

The late governor, a member of the First Baptist Church of Rolla, vetoed a ban against partial-birth abortion passed by the state legislature, a stance at odds with the Southern Baptist Convention.

Messengers to SBC annual meetings have passed multiple resolutions against abortion since 1971, when they first spoke against the practice in Kansas City, Mo. A 1987 resolution passed by messengers to the SBC annual meeting in St. Louis spoke specifically against infanticide and supported states’ rights to pass bills that ban abortion procedures.

Howard Hendricks, a Christian radio talk show host in the St. Louis area, said in an early morning interview Nov. 8 he believes voters should stand behind politicians who take moral issues seriously.

“[Carnahan] became the most pro-abortion governor we’ve ever had,” said Hendricks, a member of First Baptist Church of Ferguson, Mo. “I thought Carnahan was horribly wrong on his moral stand.”

Bill Skaggs, an 18-year member of the Missouri House of Representatives as a Democrat, said he supports a politicians’ right to stand by their party, regardless of religious affiliation.

“I’ve voted pro-choice for 18 years now,” said Skaggs, who is a deacon at First Baptist Church, North Kansas City. “The church should stay out of women’s lives.”

Even so, Skaggs was co-sponsor of a bill that would have made it a Class A felony for a physician to “perform a partial birth abortion unless necessary to save the life of the mother or to prevent a substantial and irreversible impairment of a major bodily function of the mother.”

Despite the social and moral stands of the candidates, questions about the race were raised even before the Nov. 7 election. Whether a dead man could be elected to the Senate, or whether Wilson, the former lieutenant governor, could appoint Carnahan’s widow to her dead husband’s position were frequent questions. Jean Carnahan announced Oct. 30 in an emotional speech given from the Carnahan farmhouse in Rolla, Mo., that she would accept Wilson’s nomination. Though 44 spouses have gone on to succeed their husband in similar situations, this would be the first case of a challenging widow defeating an incumbent for Congress.

An Oct. 28 Kansas City Star question-and-answer-style article attempted to explain to citizens the question of voting for Carnahan posthumously. In the article, a writer said the U.S. Constitution requires that a senator be a U.S. citizen and noted, “no one is suggesting that Mel Carnahan would serve as a senator.” Instead the article inferred the ruling would apply to whoever would be appointed to serve in the dead senator’s place.

Others argued that a vote for Carnahan on election day would count for nothing. In an e-mail circulating amongst Republicans written by St. Louis attorney Mark F. “Thor” Hearne II, he stated that “on November 7th Mel Carnahan is no longer a ‘person’ nor is he a citizen of Missouri.” He went on to argue that because of this Carnahan would not meet the qualifications set for a senator in Article I, Section 3 of the U.S. Constitution. Hearne also made a case for the direct election of a senator. He claimed the position of senator is a directly elected office and therefore Wilson does not hold the right to appointment.

Ashcroft’s action in halting his campaign for the Senate for eight days after Carnahan’s death could have cost him the race, some observers say. Despite Ashcroft’s actions, Jean Carnahan appeared on a television show and in television commercials invoking her husband’s name with a break in her voice.

Hendricks said he believes Jean Carnahan drew the sympathy vote with her last-minute campaign strategies.

“As an Ashcroft supporter I was disappointed,” Hendricks said. “There was a huge sympathy vote.”

Keeping Carnahan on the ballot for the Senate race could have stemmed from the rules in the election process, which prevent his name being removed from the ballot so late in the race. Others wondered if it was an effort by Democrats to gain Missouri’s 11 electoral votes for the presidential race, with the idea that people who voted for Carnahan would probably vote for Democrat Al Gore. Bush, however, won Missouri’s 11 electoral votes by an 8 percent margin.

Another controversy erupted late Tuesday night when St. Louis area polls were ordered by a state circuit judge to be left open for an extra three hours past the 7 p.m. deadline Tuesday night. The polls, however, closed approximately one hour after the original closing time when a state appellate court ordered the balloting to be halted immediately.

Republican advisers said the extra push aided in Carnahan’s victory. Although the ramification of the St. Louis polls staying open one extra hour will likely be hotly debated in the months to come, many said they believe this is a nonissue.

“I believe that the polls were left open one more hour than usual, and I also believe that Carnahan won by about 50,000 votes,” Skaggs said. “I don’t think that 50,000 voters could be polled in an hour. I know that there were some voting irregularities with replacing full ballot boxes, and this will probably go to the courts, but I don’t think that this is an issue.”
Chris O’Conner, Andy Meyer & Tad Brewer contributed to this article. All three are advanced journalism students at Platte County R-3 High School in Platte City, Mo. These students are joined by high school teacher Joni B. Hannigan, whose journalism class is working on a special project for Baptist Press related to the Senate race in Missouri.

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  • Ross Martin