Commentary: Harry Truman's seat

Aug 28, 2012

The contemporary history of U.S. Senate elections in Missouri is fascinating.  It is filled with twists and turns, tragedy and farce.  It is extraordinary how rich its arc is and how fabulous the alternative histories that emerge from it are.

Harry Truman’s seat is especially dramatic.  Truman was first elected in 1934 and the seat that is filled every six years on this cycle is often named after its most famous occupant.  After he was elevated to the vice presidency in 1944 and the presidency in 1945 its most prominent occupant was Stuart Symington.  When he retired in 1976 there was a fierce primary involving Symington’s son Jim, a Congressman from St. Louis, former governor Warren Hearnes, and an up-and-coming Congressman from north Missouri, Jerry Litton, who many saw in the White House in the not-too-distant-future.  Litton won the primary but was tragically killed with his family in a plane crash on the way to the victory celebration.  Hearnes became the candidate and lost to John Danforth in the general election.

In the alternative history Jerry Litton beats Danforth – 1976 was a Democratic year and Missouri was a much more Democratic state then – and is instantly seen as presidential material in the 80s.  What actually happened was Danforth beat Hearnes and, along with Kit Bond, used his influence and popularity to establish the modern Republican Party in Missouri.

Fast forward to 2000.  After Danforth’s three terms Governor John Ashcroft was elected to the seat in 1994 and in 2000 sought a second term.  His opponent was Mel Carnahan, a popular Governor, and polls showed Carnahan might win.  Carnahan and one of his sons died tragically in a plane crash in October.  His name remained on the ballot, his widow Jean ran in his place, he got more votes than Ashcroft and she was sworn in.

In the alternative history Mel Carnahan is not on that plane, is elected in 2000, serves many years in the Senate and leads a powerful political dynasty, with son Russ being elected to Congress and then statewide office and daughter Robin winning election in her own right to the Senate in 2008, producing the first father-daughter pair in Senate history.

What actually happened, as we know, is that Jean Carnahan had to run for reelection in 2002 and lost to Republican U.S. Representative Jim Talent, who in turn lost his bid for reelection to State Auditor Claire McCaskill in 2006.

Fast forward to 2012.  McCaskill, perhaps the most vulnerable incumbent in the country, finances ads supporting U.S. Representative Todd Akin in the Republican Senate primary race.  She wants him to be nominated because she sees him as her weakest opponent.  She gets her wish: he is nominated.  Early polls show him leading her.   This is not what she has in mind.

Two weeks later Rep. Akin answers a question in an interview about a topic he could easily avoid: rape.  The firestorm ensues.

Among those calling from Akin to step down is John Danforth, who held the seat for which Akin is running for 18 years.  Among those mentioned as a possible replacement, if Akin steps down, is Jim Talent, who also held this seat for a time and was also the Congressman from Missouri’s Second District.

The great political novelists Robert Penn Warren and Gore Vidal could not possible invent a plot as fascinating as the real story about Harry Truman’s Senate seat.

Terry Smith is Executive Vice President and Dean of Academic Affairs at Columbia College, and a regular contributor to Talking Politics.