By Scott Charton
COLUMBIA, Mo. -- Another plane crash in the closing stretch of a Senate election, this time in Minnesota, brought back memories of two years ago in Missouri, when Gov. Mel Carnahan was killed in the final weeks of a bitter battle with John Ashcroft.
"This takes me back because the dates are so close," said former Gov. Roger Wilson, who was thrust into the governor's office upon Carnahan's death. "It's a campaign flight, a state leader and family members lost. This is a horrible flashback and it's devastating."
Carnahan, 66, was entering the final three weeks of the campaign against then-GOP Sen. Ashcroft when he boarded a small plane on Oct. 16, 2000. The plane crashed in a storm south of St. Louis, killing Carnahan; his eldest son Roger, 44, the pilot; and campaign aide Chris Sifford, 37.
Wilson announced before Election Day 2000 that he would name widowed first lady Jean Carnahan -- who had never held elected office -- to take her husband's place in the Senate if voters elected him.
Mel Carnahan posthumously defeated Ashcroft about three weeks later, making history; no one had ever been elected senator after their death.
Now Mrs. Carnahan, 68, is in a tight battle to win the seat in her own right against a strong challenge from former GOP Rep. Jim Talent. And she has said she is running on her record as a rookie senator -- not on her husband's legacy or memory.
Mrs. Carnahan canceled campaign appearances Friday out of respect for Wellstone and his family, saying in a statement that the loss was "heartbreaking news."
"My heart goes out to the family of Paul and Sheila Wellstone and the others who have been lost," Mrs. Carnahan said.
Wellstone, a leading liberal in Congress who was locked in a tough re-election battle considered key to control of the Senate, was killed Friday in a plane crash in northern Minnesota along with his wife, daughter and five others.
The Wellstone crash inevitably evoked memories of the Carnahan crash, said Rick Hardy, a political science professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia.
"Senator Carnahan has been trying to play down memories of her husband to show she is her own person, but the Carnahan crash was such a huge and emotional event for so many Missourians, this just brings it all rushing back," Hardy said.
Talent issued a statement calling the crash "a tragic and personal loss for the Wellstone family and his friends and supporters." Talent is not suspending campaigning or changing his strategy because of Wellstone's death, said spokesman Rich Chrismer.
In 2000, Ashcroft suspended campaigning for 10 days. When he resumed, analysts said he faced three opponents: Jean Carnahan, memories of Mel Carnahan and non-stop media reports about the crash and its aftermath.