Tragic air crash leaves hole in Missouri politics

Investigators look for cause of wreck that killed popular governor in homestretch of his tight race for US Senate.

The tragic plane crash that claimed the life of Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan (D) Oct. 16 has cast a pall over America's political landscape.

It has rocked both Democratic and Republican state parties here and may have national implications as well. The crash came just hours before the final presidential debate - a "town meeting" here in St. Louis. Although the debate went forward as scheduled, Republican nominee George W. Bush canceled campaign events leading up to it. Indeed, candidates may pause for several days here, even as Missouri remains one of the fiercest battleground states of the election.

The governor himself was locked in what had been one of the nation's hottest Senate races against the Republican incumbent, Sen. John Ashcroft.

Risks of campaigning

It also highlights the risks of political campaigning, with its frequent small-plane travel. In 1976, another Senate challenger in Missouri, state Rep. Jerry Litton (D), was killed as he and his family were flying to celebrate his nomination. South Dakota Gov. George Mickelson died in 1993 when a state-owned airplane crashed in Iowa.

Governor Carnahan was flying with his chief of staff and his son Roger Carnahan, who was thought to be piloting the plane. According to details released at press time, the twin-engine Cessna crashed about 25 miles south of St. Louis some 30 minutes after takeoff. Carnahan had been scheduled to appear at a campaign event in New Madrid, Mo.

Federal investigators arrived Oct. 17 to sift through the wreckage and try to piece together what happened. Witnesses said they heard a loud whine from the engine and then a large boom. Local weather had been foggy.

The Senate race was so close that political observers speculated Carnahan felt pressure to continue campaigning despite the weather. Various polls showed Carnahan and Ashcroft within 2 percentage points of each other. Both Carnahan and his son were pilots and liked to fly themselves to events.

Senator Ashcroft suspended his campaign and pulled TV ads out of respect for the two-time Democratic governor and his family. Meanwhile, tearful Carnahan supporters gathered at his headquarters to await confirmation of crash details. Carnahan, a longtime fixture in state politics, leaves a gaping hole in the state's Democratic hierarchy. He started his career in his mid-20s as a municipal judge, moved rapidly up the ranks, serving as state legislator, state treasurer, and lieutenant governor before taking over the governorship eight years ago.

A moderate Democrat, he was well liked in both Republican and Democratic circles. He was best known for a $310 million tax increase to fund education.

Ballot can't be changed

Although his campaign is suspended, Ashcroft now looks certain to win. It is past the deadline for Democrats to substitute another name for Carnahan's on the ballot. A write-in candidacy appears unlikely to succeed.

In the meantime, Missouri Lt. Gov. Roger Wilson, a Democrat, is serving as acting governor. State voters will choose a new governor next month in a race that's been closely contested for months.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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