Missouri Battle Royal
Oct. 13, 2000: This year's Missouri Senate race, one of the most bitterly contested in the nation, feels to many observers like a battle between two incumbents. Republican Senator John Ashcroft is facing a stiff challenge from an old rival: Democratic Governor Mel Carnahan, who took over Ashcroft's seat in the governor's mansion after term limits forced him out. Now, after eight years as governor, Carnahan is running into term limits, and again has his eye on Ashcroft's seat. These longtime rivals are clashing on classic hot-button issues such as abortion and the death penalty, in a race that some observers say is becoming downright ugly.
The enmity between these men is rooted in the years when Carnahan served under Ashcroft as his elected lieutenant governor. Ashcroft accused Carnahan of trying to illegally expand the power of his office, and Ashcroft went so far as to file a lawsuit to stop him. Carnahan only served under Ashcroft for four years, but the resentment from that period still lingers.
Carnahan announced his Senate candidacy just one day after the November 1998 election and criticized Ashcroft ever since. Although the election was two years away, Carnahan attacked Ashcroft for posing as a tax cutter while raising taxes when he was governor. Carnahan also mocked his rival for taking anti-government stances when he had spent most of his adult life in politics.
This challenge forced Ashcroft to put away thoughts of a presidential bid and focus on defending his Senate seat. In early 1999 he seized an opportunity to make Carnahan appear soft on crime. Pope John Paul II visited Carnahan in January and asked him to commute the death sentence of Darrell Mease, convicted of killing three people. Carnahan agreed while reiterating his support for the death penalty. Ashcroft has constantly referred to that decision during the campaign. Ashcroft has continually touted his 'tough on crime' image with a proposal to give victims and their relatives two months' notice of a decision to commute the death penalty.
Ashcroft also portrayed Carnahan as an extreme liberal on abortion. Ashcroft's ads reminded voters that Carnahan accepted money from abortion-rights groups and vetoed a ban on "partial-birth" abortion.
The race became increasingly negative this year as Carnahan countered by painting Ashcroft as a member of the extreme right. Carnahan reminded voters that Ashcroft tried to loosen restrictions on carrying concealed weapons. Democrats are also reminding voters that Ashcroft was the only senator who voted to shut down the federal government in the fall of 1999 instead of agreeing to a temporary budget resolution to keep the government running.
Both men increased education spending during their terms as governor, but now back opposing federal plans. Ashcroft was a co-sponsor of a "direct check" plan first introduced by Missouri's senior senator, Republican Christopher Bond. The plan sends federal money to local schools and gives them wide discretion on how to spend it. Carnahan says that plan leaves the door open for schools to misuse the money. He backs a plan with bipartisan support that would ease federal regulations, but not end them.
With 14.6 percent of the state over 65, Medicare is another big issue in this race. Both candidates support providing prescription drug coverage as part of Medicare, but again endorse competing programs. After voting against Democratic proposals to set aside money to pay for prescription drug coverage, Ashcroft now supports a more moderate plan put forth by Sen. John Breaux, D-LA and Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tenn. Carnahan is a strong proponent of providing prescription drug for senior and, as governor, set up a tax credit to help seniors purchase prescription drugs.
But the race has focused on more than just policy differences. Each candidate has also accused the other of being racist. Sparks started to fly when Ashcroft blocked the nomination of black Missouri Supreme Court Judge Ronnie White to a federal judgeship, and Carnahan's supporters cried foul. Ashcroft countered that he opposed the nomination because Judge White was "soft on crime." According to news reports, Judge White affirmed the imposition of the death penalty in 41 of the 59 cases that came before his court.
Then, the Missouri Republican Party unearthed a photo of Carnhan in 1961, singing in a minstrel quartet in blackface. Carnahan released a statement apologizing for his "insensitivity 39 years ago." Missouri Republican Party Executive Director John Hancock denied leaking the photo to the press but reiterated his disgust towards minstrel shows. The NAACP appears to have accepted Carnahan's apology and has made defeating Ashcroft a top priority for the 2000 election
Voicing all of these accusations have proved to be very expensive for these candidates. Ashcroft spent $2.9 million as of July 19 and Carnahan had spent $2.7 million.
As far as the voters are concerned, this race seems to be giving off a lot of heat and very little light. Polls have shown the two candidates neck and neck since January. The two are now in a statistical dead heat, with about 40 percent each.