Missouri Senate Race Pits Liberal, Classic Conservative in Costly Duel
Rep. Alan Wheat would be state's first black statewide officeholder
ST. LOUIS — REP. ALAN WHEAT (D) of Missouri hopes to capture on Nov. 8 the US Senate seat once occupied by President Harry Truman, and more recently retiring Senator John Danforth (R). A victory for Mr. Wheat in a decidedly uphill race would make him the first black elected to statewide office here.
Missouri Democrats have not, however, captured an open Senate seat since the 1940s. And this year Republicans are determined to keep both Missouri seats as part of their campaign to take control of the Senate.
A recent poll shows the Republican candidate, former two-term governor John Ashcroft, with a 32-point lead. But Mr. Wheat's television campaign is just beginning to heat up and may help tighten the race in the next several weeks.
``Polls don't tell you much about what will happen in the future,'' Mr. Ashcroft said between campaign stops last week. ``I'm waiting for the poll on Nov. 8.''
The former governor is well-funded and well-known across the state. Sen. Bob Dole (R) of Kansas, George Bush, and Dan Quayle have come to campaign for him in recent months.
``Ashcroft is like an institution in Missouri,'' says Kenneth Warren, a political scientist at St. Louis University. ``He held public office for more than 20 years and has been out of office for only two years.''
Congressman Wheat came into the race with several disadvantages. His base of support is concentrated in his home district of Kansas City and the St. Louis metropolitan area. ``Wheat has virtually no appeal in rural Missouri,'' Professor Warren says.
And in this year of anti-Congress fervor, ``he carries the baggage of being an incumbent House member,'' says Lance LeLoup, director of the Public Policy Research Centers at the University of Missouri in St. Louis.
``The national scene is not very conducive to Democrats,'' Mr. LeLoup says. ``If Wheat was running against Ashcroft in 1992 for an open Senate seat, I think he would have a much greater chance.''
President Clinton's unpopularity apparently is hurting Democrats everywhere. When Clinton showed up at a Wheat fundraiser in Kansas City last month, the candidate went out of his way to say that he differs with the president on certain issues, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Commenting at the fundraiser, Wheat made it sound as if Clinton was simply the lesser of two evils: ``The president and I obviously share a closer philosophical view than I do with Jesse Helms, Orrin Hatch, or Bob Dole - the people John Ashcroft is trying to emulate.''
Yet the fundraiser did raise more than $500,000 of desperately needed campaign funds.
Wheat spent nearly $2 million in a tough seven-candidate primary race, depleting his campaign coffers.
``Once again the Democratic Party in the state shot itself in the foot by having such a vicious primary,'' LeLoup says. ``It's a pattern here.''
Ashcroft, on the other hand, faced little opposition in the Republican primary and saved his monetary ammunition for the post-primary campaign.
He began airing television ads attacking Wheat's voting record in mid-August, just after the primary.
``Ashcroft has pressed public sentiment on crime in his ads,'' Warren says. ``He portrays Wheat as soft on crime and himself as very tough on crime. As an issue, I think that's very effective.''
It took until the end of September for Wheat to restock his war chest and begin airing his own post-primary TV ads. And a fresh strategy was necessasry.
``Wheat is going to have to attack Ashcroft as a `do-nothing' governor and begin to redefine the issues,'' LeLoup says.
That is exactly what Wheat's ads are now attempting to do. They accuse Ashcroft of using Missouri's state plane for personal trips during his tenure as governor.
``We are responding to John Ashcroft,'' Wheat told a cheering crowd at a union hall here in St. Louis last week. ``And we are doing something far worse than the lies he has told about me. We are telling the truth about his record.''
``Anybody's better than Ashcroft,'' says Gene Zaretzky, a retired member of the Greater St. Louis Communication Workers of America. ``When he was governor, he never did anything to help the working people.''
On the issues, Missouri voters have in this race a clear choice between a liberal Democrat and a conservative Republican. Roll Call, a publication that covers Capitol Hill, has ranked Wheat the 13th most liberal of the 435 House members. And Ashcroft lost a bid for the Republican Committee chairmanship because mainstream Republicans viewed him as too conservative.
Wheat supports gun control and the recently passed crime bill. Ashcroft opposes both. Wheat opposes the death penalty. Ashcroft supports it.
Although Wheat is the first black ever nominated for statewide office by a major party in Missouri, race has not had a major role in the campaign.
``We are not and will not make race an issue,'' Ashcroft insists. And Wheat already has a proven ability to cross racial lines. Most pointedly, his current congressional district is nearly 75 percent white.