Carnahan's death shakes Democrats' Senate hopes
ST. LOUIS, Missouri (CNN) -- The sudden death of Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan has endangered Democrats' already-tenuous hopes for winning control of the Senate and left the party in shock Tuesday.
Carnahan, 66, a popular two-term governor, was the Democratic contender to oust incumbent Republican Sen. John Ashcroft in November. He died in a plane crash south of St. Louis late Monday, along with his son and an aide.
Democrats suffered a three-fold blow: A successful governor gone; a strong candidate brought down by a cruel twist of fate; and possibly brought down with him, the Democrats' dream of making 2000 the year of the great restoration.
"I believe he would have been a great United States senator, just as he was a great governor," Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-South Dakota, said Tuesday on the Senate floor.
Carnahan's death has left party officials discouraged and saddened by the loss of a prospective national leader. Just Monday morning, The New York Times was giving the Democrats an outside chance to win control of the upper house: Democrats need a gain of five Senate seats to win a majority, and Missouri was one of seven states where Republican incumbents were considered vulnerable.
"The likelihood is that the Democrats will pick up a few seats in the Senate, but not enough to wrest control from the Republicans," Georgetown University analyst Stephen Wayne said.
The Missouri race between Carnahan and Ashcroft was one of the hottest in the country. It pitted two well-funded, popular incumbents, each of whom has won several statewide elections, against each other in a neck-and-neck race where the polls have not budged for months.
Ashcroft suspended his campaign indefinitely after Carnahan's death.
Ashcroft is considered a man of principle, admired for his deep moral and conservative convictions. Carnahan was seen as the man of action -- moderate, pragmatic, with a strong record as a crime-fighter, tax-cutter and education reformer.
It was a grudge match marked by accusations of racism, ethical lapses and misrepresentation of each other's records. The two had been rivals since the late 1980s, when Carnahan served as lieutenant governor during Ashcroft's second term as governor.
Carnahan's challenge forced Ashcroft, a conservative Republican, to campaign on Democratic issues like Social Security, health insurance reform and education.
"Harry Truman's seat will go back to the working people of Missouri," he told voters at a recent rally.
Under Missouri law, it's too late for the state party to replace Carnahan on the November ballot. If he happens to come in ahead of Ashcroft in November, the state's acting governor -- a Democrat -- will someone to fill the seat.
CNN Congressional Correspondent Chris Black and Senior Political Analyst Bill Schneider contributed to this report.