It took more than two years for the Senate to take up Ronnie White's nomination to the federal bench. It took less than two hours for the Senate to reject the Missouri Supreme Court judge in a party-line vote, thanks in large part to an impassioned appeal by Sen. John Ashcroft (R-Mo.). But it didn't take any time at all for White to become a campaign issue in Missouri, where a hyper-accelerated Senate race between Ashcroft and Gov. Mel Carnahan (D) is making October 1999 feel like November 2000.
Furious black leaders are planning a rally at the courthouse where the Dred Scott slavery case was argued. "Believe me, we're going to send Ashcroft a message," warned the Rev. Willie Ellis of the New Northside Baptist Church. Fired-up Democratic leaders are blasting Ashcroft as a ruthless opportunist. "This was a political drive-by shooting," fumed state Democratic chairman Roy Temple. And the governor has sprung into attack mode.
"What Ashcroft did was a disgrace to the Senate, a real cheap shot," Carnahan said in an interview before a ribbon-cutting in this St. Louis suburb. "Yes, I think it had racial overtones. It certainly did."
So it goes here in the heart of the Permanent Campaign, where the clash of two Missouri power brokers has created a political perpetual motion machine. Carnahan announced his 2000 challenge the day after Election Day 1998. Ashcroft complains that he didn't even wait for the voting machines to cool. And ever since that day--including a brief interlude as Ashcroft considered a presidential campaign, before deciding under pressure to tend to his reelection instead--these two popular incumbents have been embroiled in one high-profile controversy after another, creating a full-time obsession for the Missouri political establishment, if not for Missouri voters.
In January, Republicans erupted over Carnahan's decision to commute a death sentence for a convicted killer at the request of the pope; Ashcroft soon embarked on a statewide victims' rights tour. Last month, the state legislature overrode Carnahan's veto of a bill banning certain late-term abortions, prompting another flurry of campaign activity. And now the two candidates are sparring over Ashcroft's crusade to block White, a black jurist appointed by Carnahan. Just yesterday, after Rep. William "Bill" Clay (D-Mo.) called Ashcroft a racist on Fox News, Ashcroft responded in a statement that "today, these smears have gone too far."
Democrats are itching to recapture Congress next year, and Republicans are desperate to maintain control; both sides see Missouri as a key battlefield in the war over the Senate, where the GOP holds a solid but not unbeatable 55 to 45 advantage. So far, the Democratic strategy is clear: portray Carnahan as a moderate, up against an extremist who opposes abortion without exceptions, railroaded an African American judge for political reasons and voted to shut down the government. The GOP script is equally obvious: cast Ashcroft as a conservative, fighting off a liberal who supports abortion on demand, waffled on the death penalty and raised money at a Hollywood fund-raiser that featured Warren Beatty.
That could be the basic playbook for the 2000 campaign all across America. It's just that in Missouri, it's started so early. And it's flaring up so often.
"It's a great race to watch--two real heavyweights, going after each other hard," said John Hancock, GOP state chairman.
"For the political establishment, this race is a 10 on the Richter scale; we think about it all the time," Democrat Temple said. "For normal voters, it's probably more like a one."
This month, the flap over Judge White--Judge Not White Enough, some supporters now call him--has Ashcroft on the defensive. He rallied his party to shoot down a nomination on the Senate floor for the first time since 1987, describing White as "pro-criminal," accusing him of reversing death sentences more than any other judge on his court. Democrats swiftly produced evidence that White had affirmed death sentences 71 percent of the time, and that four justices Ashcroft appointed when he was governor had voted for more reversals. Even Gentry Trotter, a longtime Ashcroft supporter, resigned from the senator's fund-raising committee, denouncing his "marathon public crucifixion and misinformation campaign."
"John has to be careful: He's getting a reputation as a bigot," said Trotter, a black Republican businessman.
In response, Ashcroft has produced lists of minority judges he appointed as governor, of minority judges he voted to confirm as senator, of law enforcement groups that opposed White's nomination. But the subject of race clearly makes him uncomfortable. "I appointed men and women, without regard to ethnicicity, or whatever it is you call it," he said in an interview. He said he had no idea the two Missouri groups that opposed White were all-white. Moments later, while discussing White's "minority opinions," he took pains to point out that he was referring to the judge's dissents, not the color of his skin.
"You have to be so careful about this stuff," Ashcroft said with an embarrassed shrug. But he refused to respond to Carnahan's attacks about race. "People in Missouri know what I'm about," he said with a grimace. "They've been very generous to me in the past."
Ashcroft, an energetic politician, was state auditor, attorney general and a two-term governor before sweeping into the Senate with 60 percent of the vote in 1994. Carnahan, son of a former congressman, was a state legislator, state treasurer, and lieutenant governor to Ashcroft before he was elected governor in 1992 and then easily reelected in 1996. Most early polls give Ashcroft a modest lead, but almost everyone agrees the race will be close.
The polls do suggest that Carnahan alienated some voters when he granted a reprieve to Darrell Mease, a death row inmate who had gunned down a 19-year-old paraplegic and his grandparents. Carnahan said he commuted the sentence out of respect for the pope; he supports the death penalty, and as an aide pointed out, "Mel's been stacking up bodies right and left." But Ashcroft promptly invited the family of Mease's victims to his hearings in Missouri, and Republicans believe the issue will resonate next November.
"I don't usually pay attention to politics until voting time, but believe me, I'm going to remember Carnahan saving that killer," said Stanley Duncan, 70, a retired Boeing supervisor from St. Charles.
Carnahan made national news again when his veto of a bill banning what critics call "partial-birth" abortions was overridden by the Democratic-controlled legislature; it was only the third time a veto has been overridden in Missouri this century. A federal judge then suspended the ban as unconstitutional, but Ashcroft aides believe the governor handed them a tailor-made campaign issue. Missouri has always been at the forefront of the anti-abortion movement; when Ashcroft was attorney general, he defended a state parental consent law before the Supreme Court.
The real issue, Carnahan insists, is again moderation versus extremism. Ashcroft, son of a prominent evangelist, is a lead sponsor of a constitutional amendment to ban abortions nationwide. "From a substantive perspective, we're sorry the partial-birth bill passed," said Geoff Garin, Carnahan's pollster. "But from a political perspective, we're delighted to remind everyone that Ashcroft wants to criminalize all abortions."
Carnahan and Ashcroft agree that ultimately, the focus of the race will shift away from social issues such as abortion and the death penalty, toward bread-and-butter issues such as Social Security, Medicare, education and health care. But they also agree that the key themes of these early battles will echo for the duration of the race, and other races all over the country: Democratic moderate versus extremist, Republican conservative versus liberal.
Ashcroft is certainly one of the more conservative members of the Senate. He was the only senator to vote against a stopgap measure to keep the government running last month. He has a perfect rating from the Christian Coalition. He has opposed gun control and tobacco controls and the patient's bill of rights. In his flirtation with a presidential run, he had touted himself as a traditional conservative alternative for GOP primary voters.
"He's a spokesman for the far right," Carnahan said. "He's a captive of Big Tobacco. He's in the National Rifle Association's pocket. He's no representative of mainstream Missouri."
Yes, it sounds like an election year in the Show Me State. It isn't, though, and voters like Emily Weaver, a speech therapist in Berkeley, are already tired of the rhetoric. "I wish they'd just shut up already!" she said.
Ashcroft seems to be getting the message first. In an interview, he kept pointing out that he has not even formally announced his reelection campaign, referring to Carnahan only as a "person who happens to be a liberal."
"My own view is that campaigns are too long," he said.