ST. PAUL, Minn. - Democratic Sen. Paul D. Wellstone of Minnesota, his wife and a daughter perished in a small-plane crash late yesterday morning, 11 days before voters were to consider his re-election to a seat that might be critical to control of the U.S. Senate.
The tragedy shocked Minnesotans and plunged their state and national politics into confusion. It was not certain immediately whether independent Gov. Jesse Ventura would appoint an interim senator for the remaining two months of Wellstone's term, the state Democratic Party would name a replacement or the late senator's name would remain on the ballot through Election Day, Nov. 5.
President Bush led a long list of political figures who expressed shock and dismay at the death of the man regarded as one of the Senate's most committed, energetic and outspoken liberals. "Paul Wellstone was a man of deep conviction," the president said. "He was a plain-spoken fellow who did his best for his state and for his country. May the good Lord bless those who grieve."
The crash occurred in a heavily wooded area near Eveleth, Minn. The cause of the crash was not immediately determined. The sky was overcast, and a light snow fell at the time of the accident. An airport official said that landing conditions were satisfactory but that the 11-seat Beechcraft King Air A-100 appeared to be approaching off course about two miles from the Eveleth airport when it went down.
Wellstone was on his way to the funeral of the father of a state legislator and was then to make campaign appearances.
Also killed were the senator's wife, Sheila, and daughter, Marcia, as well as three campaign aides, Tom Lapic, Mary McEvoy and Will McLaughlin, and the two pilots.
Jolted by tragedy
Other aides at the Wellstone campaign headquarters here were jolted into teary-eyed silence as they sat around a long conference table or roamed through the offices hugging each other.
At one point, former Vice President Walter F. Mondale, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, the Massachusetts Democrat who had been campaigning for Wellstone, and Minnesota state Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe came in, shaking hands and hugging campaign aides.
"Today, the nation lost its most passionate advocate for fairness and justice for all," Kennedy said.
The death of Wellstone, 58, threw into further chaos a political situation that was already in turmoil. With President Bush campaigning relentlessly this fall in quest of a Democratic-held seat that would give the Republican Party control of the Senate, the Minnesotan was a prime target.
Vice President Dick Cheney had intervened by persuading a prospective GOP senatorial candidate, Minnesota House Majority Leader Tim Pawlenty, to run for governor so that former Republican Mayor Norman Coleman, the White House's hand-picked candidate, could oppose Wellstone.
Filling the vacancy
It remains uncertain how the vacancy caused by Wellstone's death will be filled. The U.S. and Minnesota constitutions empower the governor to make an appointment, but the Minnesota Constitution also says that if a candidate dies within 16 days of an election, his state party may name a replacement for the ballot.
Ventura, who is not seeking re-election, said he was unprepared to make a decision about the vacancy other than to say that he would not appoint himself as interim senator. In light of the confusion over the roles of the governor and what is known here as the Democratic-Farmer-Labor (DFL) Party, he said, the matter might have to be resolved by the Supreme Court.
Ventura did not specify whether he meant the state or federal Supreme Court. In the recent withdrawal from re-election by Sen. Robert G. Torricelli of New Jersey, the U.S. Supreme Court allowed the Democratic Party to substitute for him, and former Sen. Frank Lautenberg agreed to run, possibly saving a Democratic seat that polls had indicated Torricelli would lose.
The circumstances in Minnesota suggest that either the independent Ventura, at political war with both the Democrats and Republicans in the state legislature during his nearly four years in office, or the DFL will decide, leaving the Republican Party in the cold and increasing the GOP's imperative to win the Nov. 5 election.
If Ventura decides to name an interim senator, pressure will be great on him to pick a member of Wellstone's party, though the law does not require it. No names of prospective Democratic appointees were immediately floated.
The leading Democrat in the state after Wellstone is Moe, but he is the DFL nominee for governor, running against Pawlenty and a third candidate, independent Tim Penny, a former Democratic congressman backed by Ventura.
A prominent Democrat, former Gov. and U.S. Sen. Wendell R. Anderson, said that if the choice is the DFL's, the sentiment will be strong to keep Wellstone's name on the ballot and let the voters decide. In the most recent poll for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Wellstone led Coleman by 47 percent to 41 percent.
Wellstone's recent vote against the Bush resolution authorizing use of force against Iraq, if diplomatic efforts to disarm Saddam Hussein of weapons of mass destruction failed, was considered by some likely to hurt him politically. But it did not appear to cost him support. Many here said the vote confirmed Wellstone's liberal posture and his integrity.
The tragedy in Minnesota eerily resembles what happened two years ago in Missouri, when Democratic Gov. Mel Carnahan died in a plane crash shortly before his election challenge to then-Sen. John Ashcroft, now the U.S. attorney general.
Carnahan's name was left on the ballot, and in death he beat the Republican Ashcroft. The Democratic lieutenant governor who had been elevated to the governorship by Carnahan's demise, Bob Holden, then appointed the dead man's widow, Jean, to fill the seat for two years until an election could be held for the remaining four years of the new term.
She is now seeking those remaining four years in another tight race, against former Republican Rep. Jim Talent.
Sun staff writer Ellen Gamerman contributed to this article.