Behind the grief, whispers about politics

The popular incumbent was fighting a tough reelection battle, and both parties wonder how his death will change the balance of power in the Democrat-controlled Senate.

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Although it was drowned out by expressions of grief, there was quiet talk of politics Friday after the sudden death of Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn, the Senate’s most liberal member. With the midterm election a mere 11 days away, it was hard to keep pundits and political insiders away from the question of how the tragedy will complicate the Democrats’ efforts to maintain their slim margin of control of the United States Senate.

At the end of the day Friday, it remained unclear whether Wellstone would be replaced on the ballot, and if so, by whom, though one name that surfaced early was former Vice President Walter Mondale. It was also uncertain whether Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura, the Reform Party maverick, would pick a replacement for Wellstone to serve out the progressive incumbent’s term during the “lame duck” session of Congress set for November. The only thing Ventura promised voters Friday is that if he picked a replacement, he wouldn’t pick himself.

The news that Wellstone was killed when his small plane crashed near Duluth, Minn., was an eerie echo of October 2000, when Gov. Mel Carnahan, D-Mo., died in a plane crash just three weeks before the November elections. Then, as now, the senator’s death came in the middle of a hard-fought election campaign and with partisan control of the Senate on the line. Missouri law prevented Democrats from replacing Carnahan on the ballot, but the governor agreed in advance to appoint his wife, Jean. She took the Senate seat when her husband was elected by voters, defeating incumbent John Ashcroft, whom President Bush later named attorney general.

Unlike Missouri, Minnesota state law allows the party to replace a candidate as little as four days before an election in the event of death or catastrophic illness. Minnesota Attorney General Mike Hatch said the Democratic Party would have until this coming Thursday to name a replacement for Wellstone on the November ballot.

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Some party leaders told reporters that the leading candidate to replace Wellstone is former Vice President Mondale, who served as senator from Minnesota for 16 years, and later ran for president against Ronald Reagan in 1984. “The name I’m hearing is Fritz Mondale going on the ballot at this time,” Minnesota’s other Democratic senator, Mark Dayton, told Fox News Friday. “Certainly he would have the credibility, certainly have the stature to do that.” Dayton said Minnesota Democrats would rally around the 74-year-old Mondale in the coming days, should Mondale become a candidate.

But late Friday, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee said no decision had been made about a replacement for Wellstone, and the party isn’t even certain whether the law requires that Wellstone be replaced, or whether his name could remain on the ballot. “It is unclear whether Senator Wellstone’s name must be removed,” DSSC legal counsel Marc Elias said. While legal requirements may well determine what Democrats do, they won’t be the only consideration. “Some of it is legal, and some of it has to do with what the family wants,” says DSCC spokeswoman Tovah Ravitz-Meehan, noting that relatives may have reason to want the name to remain on the ballot. “But at this point, it’s still unclear what our options are.” There may be those who argue that Wellstone, who had pulled ahead of Republican Norm Coleman in a tough reelection campaign, is the strongest candidate for the Democrats, and leaving him on the ballot would also give Democrats more time to sort through who should be his successor.

Another factor that could complicate the decision is that absentee voting in Minnesota is already underway, and some voters have already cast ballots for the popular incumbent. Minnesota Secretary of State Mary Kiffmeyer declined to discuss Friday what would happen to those votes if Wellstone’s name is removed.

Wellstone’s death may also have an immediate impact on partisan control for the lame duck session. State law dictates that the winner of the November election be sworn in immediately after the election is certified, on Nov. 19. So if, for example, Coleman wins in Minnesota, he would join the Senate on Nov. 19, and control of the upper chamber would at least temporarily shift to the Republicans. Although the lame duck session is mostly scheduled to take care of fairly mundane appropriations matters — though the session may include debate over the bill to create a homeland security agency, which could be hot — it’s possible to imagine aggressive Republicans pushing through judicial appointees, for example, during their moment of control.

In a press conference Friday, Ventura did not say whom, if anyone, he would appoint to fill the remainder of Wellstone’s term, but he did say that he would not name himself. So far the short list of possible Ventura appointees being talked about includes only Democrats: Attorney Mike Ciresi, who lost to Sen. Mark Dayton, D-Minn., in 2000, and state auditor Judi Dutcher, who lost in this year’s Democratic gubernatorial primary.

Anthony York is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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