When colleague Dave Helling and I kick around the most intense political campaigns we’ve ever covered, one race always rises to the top.
Ashcroft-Carnahan 2000. The race for the U.S. Senate pit two of the most successful politicians in Missouri history against each other. For the Democrats, it was Mel Carnahan, a former state lawmaker, state treasurer, lieutenant governor and incumbent two-term governor.
For the Republicans, it was incumbent Sen. John Ashcroft, a former state auditor, two-term attorney general and two-term Republican governor who would go on to be U.S. attorney general under President George W. Bush.
These two didn’t like each other, and it showed from the moment the race began. The campaign became immortalized just more than two weeks before Election Day when Carnahan died in a plane crash, but still wound up winning the election. His widow, Jean, went on to serve the first part of the term.
This year, another Carnahan is on the ballot — and so is another Ashcroft. For my own health, it’s probably a good thing they’re not running against each other.
Former Missouri Congressman Russ Carnahan of St. Louis is attempting a political comeback of sorts following a crushing 2012 primary loss. This year the Democrat is running for lieutenant governor. He faces Republican Mike Parson, a state senator from Bolivar.
Meantime, Republican Jay Ashcroft, a lawyer and engineer, is facing off against Democrat Robin Smith, a retired St. Louis newscaster, for secretary of state. Ashcroft lost his first political race for state Senate in 2014.
The trick for down-ballot candidates is finding a way to juice up their name ID enough that they can cut through the clutter of higher-profile races for governor and U.S. Senate. Ashcroft and Carnahan already have that in droves.
That may explain why both won their primaries in landslides. And it also may explain why Ashcroft listed his name on the ballot as “John (Jay) Ashcroft” rather than simply, “Jay Ashcroft.”
It’s that overwhelming statewide name ID that makes both of them the early favorites this November.
But is that an accurate read? Both Smith and Parson beg to differ.
Smith has her own claim to fame as a St. Louis TV reporter and anchor for 42 years on a station that billed itself as “fair, unbiased, impartial and truthful.”
“Robin Smith is a name the voters in the St. Louis metro area and 21 surrounding counties have grown up with their entire lives,” she told me.
To top it off, she’s married to Bud Stallworth, a former KU basketball star who once scored 50 points in a 1972 game against Missouri. These days, he’s a sportscaster still involved with Jayhawk basketball.
In other words, Smith thinks her name ID is just fine, thank you.
She threw out a challenge. If she and Ashcroft walked through a mall anywhere in Missouri, “no one would know who he is, and everyone would know who I am.”
“I think Mr. Ashcroft needs to worry, not me.”
For his part, Parson questioned just how much the Carnahan name still resonates. Russ Carnahan lost that 2012 congressional race. His sister, Robin Carnahan, was soundly defeated in her 2010 U.S. Senate race against Roy Blunt. Jim Talent nipped Jean Carnahan in the 2002 Missouri Senate race.
“At some point you have to stand on your own merits,” Parson said.
Parson thinks all his campaigning has closed the name ID gap. We’ll find out in November.