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Ashcroft ousted in historic Senate race

November 08, 2000
By: Clayton Bellamy
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - Missourians handed John Ashcroft a dubious historical distinction Tuesday, making him the first senator ever to be defeated by a dead man.

Late governor Mel Carnahan, riding an eleventh-hour surge of St. Louis city votes, led Ashcroft 50-49 percent with 86 percent of precincts reporting. Major news organizations nationwide were calling the race for Carnahan.

Mel Carnahan died in a plane wreck while campaigning on Oct. 16. Roger Wilson, who became governor after the crash, said he would appoint Jean Carnahan if Mel Carnahan outpolled Ashcroft. The first lady later said she would accept the term which would expire under state law in 2002.

Missouri's Senate race was viewed by Democrats as one of several shots they had to cut into the GOP's slim Senate majority. Despite Carnahan's win, Republicans retained their grip on partisan control.

In record turnout for the state, voters lined up outside polling stations, sometimes waiting more than an hour to vote.

Long queues at St. Louis polling stations led a circuit court judge to hold city polling stations open past the 7 o'clock close in response to a Democratic petition. The GOP appealed and a higher court overruled, closing the polls after an additional hour of voting.

Those delayed St. Louis city returns -- long a Democratic stronghold and nearly 4-1 Democratic this year -- pushed Mel Carnahan past Ashcroft.

At Ashcroft's St. Louis party, Republicans were livid at the extended voting hours, which Ashcroft called "irregularities."

Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo., cut his hand while angrily pounding the podium and promising the GOP faithful at the party that he would seek criminal charges under federal law.

Reflecting the exciting and tight national race, also decided in the morning hours, Missouri's U.S. Senate contest represented the first time in U.S. history that a dead man was on a Senate ballot.

Republicans have raised a litany of legal questions surrounding Jean Carnahan's appointment, arguing that the first lady should have been a write-in candidate, that Wilson's forecasted appointment was illegal and that Mel Carnahan no longer met the Constitutional requirements for a U.S. senator.

Polls before Mel Carnahan died showed the race nip-and-tuck, and after Jean Carnahan entered that didn't change a lot, with polls putting her ahead but within the margins of error.

Jean Carnahan didn't run a "traditional" campaign, running only one commercial and appearing in limited news coverage.

The unusual nature of the match-up put Ashcroft in a "political straitjacket," according to MU political science professor Rick Hardy.

Ashcroft "seemed rather subdued while campaigning lately," Hardy said. "Everything was in a state of confusion. He'd be talking about issues but people would ask him about his reaction to Mel Carnahan's death."

Ashcroft led nearly all day until the returns from St. Louis began to pour in.

Jean Carnahan spent the day in the family farm in Rolla but phoned Democratic loyalists reveling in St. Louis.

"I pledge to you we will never let the fire go out," Jean Carnahan said in the call.

Secretary of State Bekki Cook had projected a voter turnout of about 2.4 million, or 66 percent of the state's 3.6 million registered voters. The day's actual turnout appeared to have slightly exceeded that prediction.

Missourians requested a large number of absentee ballots this year. Jim Grebing, spokesman for the secretary of state's office, said more absentee ballots were requested than in 1996, the previous presidential election year.

High turnout usually means a good showing for Democrats, Hardy said.

"This is a rare opportunity to cast a ballot," Hardy said. "There's probably people who've never cast a vote who voted for Jean Carnahan."

But Republicans also worked hard to get the vote out, a plan that paid dividends early in the day.

"We have all seen the air-war but most important is the ground war," said Ann Wagner, the state's GOP chairman. "For 21 months we've been establishing phone banks, volunteer networks, and making sure each county has a coordinator. The ground war only moves things marginally, maybe two or three points, but in a race this close, if we win, this (the ground war) is why."

John Hancock, the GOP's state executive director, said the party made about 3 million automated messages in the last week and more than 500,000 phone calls Tuesday.