Missouri May Hold A Major Election Key
Lawrence C. Levy
Wednesday October 25, 2000
JEFFERSON CITY, Mo.-Like thousands of others who arrived in church buses and stretch limos, as well as Air Force One and Two, State Sen. Ted House came here Friday to bury Gov. Mel Carnahan.
As chairman of the state education committee, House worked closely with Carnahan-the hard-charging, straight-shooting Democrat who died in a plane crash campaigning for the U.S. Senate-to pass the late governor's signature Out-standing Schools Act. And as a candidate for Congress in an open suburban district 100 miles to the east, House was counting on Carnahan's bipartisan appeal to filter down to his Republican-leaning district. Two candidates, one agenda on education and health care.
If the state is poorer for losing Carnahan, as House said, so is the Democratic Party-and, considering the list of mourners, not just in Missouri.
Bill Clinton showed up with Hillary Rodham Clinton, who took a day off from her own race to listen to the eulo-gies beneath the gaze of Thomas Jefferson on the statehouse steps. Al and Tipper Gore, who have managed to keep their distance from the Clintons on the trail, showed no ambivalence about freaking out the Secret Service by taking the same limo and marching with them behind the caisson that carried Carnahan's casket.
"I just loved the guy," Clinton said, biting his famous lower lip seemingly more to stifle his own tears than to wring them from others.
But even if they weren't close friends and fellow warriors for the New Democratic "third way" that helped their party in this moderate "swing" state, as well as in many suburbs throughout the country, Gore and Clinton would have wanted to show their flag in the "show-me" state. For a few sad but inspiring hours-from the first strains of "Danny Boy" by the St. Louis Symphony's string quartet to the last of "Amazing Grace" by a lone police bagpiper, from the first clip-clop of the riderless horse with the boots reversed in the stirrups to the fading roar of F-15s in the "lost-man" for-mation-the center of Missouri's government was the center of the nation's political world.
And it may stay that way through Nov. 7: In the closest national election in a generation, Missouri could become the "show-us" state.
Voters here and in a handful of other undecided states that Clinton-Gore carried in 1996 may well determine who occupies the White House and which party controls the Capitol-including whether Missouri's own Dick Gephardt as-cends from pesky House minority leader to powerful speaker.
How Missourians react politically to the death of Carnahan could determine not only which presidential candidate carries this deadlocked state but who wins the Senate seat he was seeking against a Republican incumbent and two open suburban congressional seats.
Will Democrats in "Missouruh," as Clinton called it in his characteristically eloquent and empathetic eulogy, be so depressed that they won't come to the polls? If so, that would hurt Gore and Democratic candidates seeking lower of-fices, such as those running for the open House seats in suburbs of Kansas City and St Louis.
But if Democrats can be rallied to win one-or more-for this Gipper, close races up and down the ticket could be tipped in their favor.
Carnahan's lieutenant governor, Roger Wilson, who became governor after the crash, announced yesterday that he would appoint Carnahan's popular widow to the seat if her husband gets more votes than incumbent Republican John Ashcroft. By state law, it's too close to the election to remove Carnahan's name from the ballot. So will voters pull a lever for a dead moderate instead of a live conservative? Will there be a personal sympathy vote for the state's first lady, who held the hand of a grandson as she marched behind the caisson and whose strong and dignified image appealed to many even before this tragedy?
More important for state and national Democrats, will his party's candidates be able to make the case that Carnahan's cautious but progressive philosphy of governing would be lost if voters elect the more conservative Republi-cans who fought his programs?
Ted House has to count on it in suburban St. Louis. Even for a conservative Democrat who opposes abortion and most gun controls, this is a tough district that defies the national trend in the Crabgrass Frontier toward moderate poli-tics. If Republicans lose the Second Congressional District seat, which they have owned for a decade, it is hard to imag-ine the party holding enough to retain control of Congress. For the Democrats, it would be a gift.
The St. Louis area itself is a blend of the midwestern and southern sensibilities, more conservative and in the last generation more loyal to the Republican Party label. "There's no way a bleeding-heart liberal Democrat would have a chance in this district," said John Hobach, House's campaign treasurer. "Abortion alone would kill him." Added House: "Gephardt couldn't win here no matter how much he spent." Like Missouri, House is a blend of the conservative and moderate.
He hopes his passionate opposition to abortion and gun controls will make him acceptable to social conservatives, even as his strong record on education would make some of them, as well as the relatively small number of independent moderates, choose him over Republican State Sen. Todd Akin. Party identification makes that a tough, if not impossi-ble, task. But Akin's arch ideology-House called him "a right-wing nut"-could give the Democrat an opening.
If House is the most conservative Democrat in the Missouri Senate, Akin is one of the more right-wing Republi-cans. Winning a primary in a crowded field of candidates seeking to succeed Rep. Jim Talent, who is running for gover-nor, Akin edged a better-known and more moderate Republican state senator by 60 votes-winning only 26 percent of the total.
House's aides concede that the favorite would have been harder to run against. Akin has voted against every tax in-crease, no matter what the money was for, including a bill for local highway projects and Carnahan's and House's school-reform package. Akin, who grew up wealthy, home- schools his children. And he said in a recent debate that the U.S. Constitution doesn't guarantee a job, health care or an education. He routinely disparages most social programs, saying of the Democratic plan to provide prescription drugs to seniors, " It's called the U.S. something-the USSR!" But, even as House is counting on help from Republicans, his biggest problem may be Democrats-both locally and nation-ally.
First there's Gore. The vice president is not a popular figure in the Second District, a mostly prosperous and ex-panding suburb that has helped suck many of the people and jobs out of downtown St. Louis. But neither was Clinton popular in the district. He lost here to Bob Dole in 1996 even as he carried the state that borders on both the president's home of Arkansas and the vice president's Tennessee. Gore, however, is far less competitve in the district than in most northern suburbs. He's perceived here as too liberal, as well as not likable, while Bush's "compassionate conservatism" and his rhetoric of reform strikes a soothing chord. And that suburban gap here is one of the reasons Gore has not been able to pull away in -and has had to divert time and money to -a state he can't afford to lose.
So it's not surprising you would have an easier time getting Gore ("I'm running as my own man") to join hands in public with Clinton than getting House to run closely with Gore. George W. Bush should win the district handily, but just how handily could make the difference in who carries the state. A big win for Bush in the 'burbs outside St. Louis and Kansas City would mean he takes Missouri from the Democratic column. And it would mean House wouldn't have a chance.
Then there's Gephardt as another problem for House, and not because of the minority leader's liberal credentials.
One of the reasons the Second District is so conservative and Republican is that Gephardt wanted his own St. Louis-area district and another mostly within the city to be more solidly Democratic. The Second District was the sacri-ficial gerrymander. It is so Republican that House has not been aggressive in making the case that a vote for him would be a vote to have a Missourian the next speaker, and the millions in pork that could deliver for the state.
But House's biggest problem with many Democrats is his opposition to the party's positions on abortion and guns. And it has cost him dearly in being able to reach voters. "Some traditional Democratic donors sat out early on. But, as the choice becomes clear, some are coming back," said House's campaign manager, Crystal Litz. Added House: "I'm hoping pro-choice Democrats will hold their noses and vote for me as a vote for Gephardt, better health care and a De-mocratic majority."
In the end, the difference might be whether voters want a congressman who opposed or supported a moderate gov-ernor whose policies they applauded-in life and death and now in the draft candidacy of his widow. It may be House's, not to mention Gore's and Gephardt's, best hope.