Political effect of Wellstone’s death still widely contested

Libby George

The mourning for Sen. Paul Wellstone and those killed in Friday’s plane crash has just begun, but political scientists and analysts are weighing the consequences of his death on Minnesota’s political landscape, namely the Senate race.

“This will have an effect on many people,” said Rep. Gil Gutknecht, R-Minn. “Obviously it will affect the political landscape in Minnesota.”

However, just what that effect will be is contested.

University of Missouri political science professors Lana Stein and David Kimball – who witnessed a similar phenomenon in the 2000 Missouri Senate race when Democratic Senate candidate Mel Carnahan was killed in a plane crash shortly before the election – said sympathy for Wellstone might tip the scales in the favor of his Democratic successor.

In that race, Carnahan defeated Republican opponent and current Attorney General John Ashcroft posthumously, and his wife Jean took office.

“It seemed to me that Ashcroft may have been a little ahead in the polls before Carnahan died,” Stein said. “(The crash) galvanized the support so that Mel Carnahan would win the election.”

Kimball also said emotions might play a role in tipping the scales depending on who is chosen as Wellstone’s successor.

“If it’s someone who can quickly carry the Democratic mantle and carry the Wellstone torch, I could see some kind of sympathy movement,” Kimball said.

According to DFL Party leaders, analysts and the Wellstone family, Walter Mondale, the former vice president, senator and current Minnesota attorney, is the favored Wellstone successor.

Hy Berman, University history professor and political analyst for KARE 11, said the tragedy of Wellstone’s death would complicate Republican candidate Norm Coleman’s bid for office.

“In a way, I feel sorry for Norm Coleman,” Berman said. “When he was up for governor he ran into a whip named Jesse Ventura. This time he’s running for Senate, and he’s run into the tragedy of a plane crash.”

Kimball said Wellstone’s death could also impact national elections.

“It could mobilize a lot of Democrats to vote out of sympathy,” Kimball said. “It depends on how much attention is given to Wellstone’s death.”

University political science professor Bill Flanigan disagreed.

“There’s a sympathy feeling out there, but I don’t think that will translate into votes,” Flanigan said. “I don’t think that anything like this will cause people who decided to vote for Coleman to switch and vote for Wellstone.”

Flanigan added that Democrats are not more likely to vote now, because with extra stimulation from the gubernatorial race and “Get out the Vote” efforts, “it was already going to be a high-turnout election.”

Despite speculation that Wellstone’s death would push state Democrats into office, Kimball said it could hurt them as well.

“I could see it working in the other direction, and Democratic voters would be discouraged,” Kimball said. “Potentially, other Democrats might be hurt by lower turnout from core supporters.”

Kimball added that another key difference was the laws regarding replacing the deceased candidate.

Missouri law allows the candidate to remain on the ballot; in Minnesota, however, the law states that a successor must be placed on the ballot, said Attorney General Mike Hatch.

“That way, people felt completely comfortable voting for Mel Carnahan. It was not as if voters were asked to consider a whole new person,” Kimball said.

Minnesota election law also threatens Wellstone’s successor through absentee ballots.

Absentee votes already received for Coleman will count; votes for Wellstone will not count unless the voter requests a new ballot. This gives Coleman a “very tiny edge,” Hatch said.