GOP sweeps back into power in Congress

Sun National Staff

Republicans regained control of Congress in yesterday's election, preserving their majority in the House of Representatives and sweeping back to power in the Senate.

It was a strong showing for President Bush and the Republicans, though they did not gain a large number of seats in either house of Congress - reflecting a nation that remains split almost evenly down party lines.

The Senate tipped back into Republican hands shortly after 2 a.m. today, when Missouri Sen. Jean Carnahan conceded defeat in her bid to retain the seat her late husband, Mel, won posthumously two years ago.

The GOP's stronghold was solidified after prevailing in a squeaker in Minnesota, where Senate votes were counted until early this morning. The party did not prevail in another close contest, in South Dakota.

Republicans now will hold 51 Senate seats, plus Vice President Dick Cheney's tie-breaking vote, compared with the 46 seats Democrats will hold and the independent slot held by Vermont Sen. Jim Jeffords.

In the House, Tuesday's voting raise the GOP's tally to 226 seats, compared with 204 Democratic spots and four undecided seats.

In Minnesota, Norm Coleman, Bush's recruit to challenge incumbent Sen. Paul Wellstone, narrowly defeated former Vice President Walter F. Mondale, the Democrat named to the ballot after Wellstone's death in a plane crash 11 days before the election.

"I told him that being in the U.S. Senate is the best job in America, and I think he will love it," Mondale said in a concession speech today in St. Paul about 10:30 a.m. He had lost in a 49 percent-to-50 percent vote ratio. "I have no regrets."

Mondale said the one-week campaign "gave me strength. I love this state. I love Minnesotans. ... You treated me decently. You listened to me. You treated me with respect. You've made your decision, and I respect it."

He also criticized the heavy Democratic partisanism that prevailed at last week's memorial service for Wellstone. "We went through unspeakable tragedy," Mondale said. "The eulogizers were hurt the most, and it doesn't justify it. We all make mistakes."

The former vice president, at 75, declaring that this was "obviously" his final political campaign, said: "We kept the faith, we stayed the course, we fought the good fight -- and everyone should be proud of it."

In South Dakota, Sen. Tim Johnson, the Democrat incumbent, held on to his seat by a 50 percent-to-49 percent ratio, besting Rep. John Thune, the GOP challenger hand-picked by Bush. A recount will be held.

"The final results are in, the ballots have been counted," Johnson said in a speech to supporters in Sioux Falls just before 11 a.m. "It's time for us South Dakotans to come together to move our agenda forward."

In Washington earlier today, a White House spokesman said the president and his party had "made history" and Republicans were "feeling good" about their chances of adding seats in the House.

"It is clear President Bush's popularity and hard work on behalf of candidates helped them," press secretary Ari Fleischer said.

If Republicans wind up gaining House seats when all the votes are tallied, it would be the first time that a Republican president's party increased its membership in the House in an election at the midpoint of a president's term.

Adding to the election-night suspense: a breakdown of the computerized system that TV networks and newspapers have come to rely on to help project winners and losers. That failure put greater reliance on actual vote counts, left analysts in the dark about voters' intentions and slowed the ability of news organizations to determine the outcome of key contests around the country.

On a day when Republicans won the Maryland governorship for the first time since the 1960s, a White House-led push produced a stunning GOP victory in Georgia.

Rep. Saxby Chambliss unseated Democratic Sen. Max Cleland and Republican Sonny Perdue, a former state senator, registering one of the year's biggest upsets, defeated Gov. Roy Barnes to become the first Republican elected governor of Georgia in more than a century.

Bush, who put his prestige on the line with a frenetic campaign that took him to 35 states, watched the returns at the White House with Republican congressional leaders and party strategists, whose elation grew as the evening progressed.

Presidential popularity

Bush's popularity, higher than any of his recent predecessors at this point in their terms, insulated his party's candidates from the political effect of a sluggish economy and had Republicans within shooting distance of a historic achievement: gaining House seats in a midterm election.

In an important triumph for the presidential family, Bush's younger brother Jeb was re-elected by a wide margin as governor of Florida over Bill McBride, a Tampa lawyer. Democratic National Chairman Terry McAuliffe had called Jeb Bush's defeat the top priority for Democrats in the 2002 campaign, and the president made a dozen campaign visits to Florida to make sure that wouldn't happen.

At a victory celebration in Miami, Bush embraced his father, the former president, then thanked "our great president of the United States for coming down and lending a hand to his little brother."

Bush also phoned former Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris to congratulate her on her election to Congress from a district on the state's southwest Gulf Coast. Harris played a central role in that state's contentious vote-counting drama that resulted in a 537-vote victory for George W. Bush and won him the presidency.

Other key victories

Besides Georgia, other key victories for Republicans included North Carolina, where Elizabeth Dole, the former Cabinet secretary and wife of former Sen. Bob Dole, defeated former Clinton aide Erskine Bowles for the seat being vacated by retiring Republican Sen. Jesse Helms.

Republicans also held Senate seats being vacated by retiring or defeated incumbents in New Hampshire, South Carolina, Texas and Tennessee.

Democrats gained several big-state governorships but failed to win as many governor's races as party strategists had hoped. Ed Rendell became the first former Philadelphia mayor in nearly 90 years to win a contest for Pennsylvania governor, an office held by Republicans the past eight years.

In Illinois, Rep. Rod R. Blagojevich, a congressman from the north side of Chicago, became the first Democrat to win the governorship since 1972. In Michigan, Jennifer Granholm became the first woman elected governor of that industrial state, and former U.N. Ambassador Bill Richardson was elected governor of New Mexico.

Republicans, meantime, won by a landslide in Texas, where Gov. Rick Perry, who ascended to the office after Bush resigned to become president, was elected on his own for the first time. He crushed oilman and banker Tony Sanchez, who put as much as $70 million of his own money into the race, possibly setting a spending record for a losing candidate.

In other governors' contests, Republicans picked up New Hampshire and South Carolina from the Democrats, as well as Maryland. In Massachusetts, former U.S. Olympic Committee executive Mitt Romney won the race for governor, his first elective office.

The nation's top Democratic officeholder, Senate Leader Tom Daschle, was the biggest loser. Besides his position as majority leader, the South Dakota senator might have lost whatever chance he had of running for his party's 2004 presidential nomination.

In a TV interview several hours before the Senate fell to the Republicans, Daschle said he did not think the American people wanted to give one party "carte blanche" to control both Congress and the White House, as the Republicans did for the first six months of Bush's term.

That "is not something the American people want in a 50-50 country," Daschle said on ABC. "If the House is going to be Republican, I think the Senate ought to be Democratic."

In the race for the House, late poll closings in the western United States and several tight contests elsewhere made it difficult to know immediately the precise number of seats each party will have when the new Congress meets in January.

A breakdown in the Election Day polling operation also prevented news organizations from knowing who voted for which candidates and why - trend information that usually is available by early evening on Election Day.

Florida officials, meantime, reported none of the major problems that made the state's election system a national joke in recent elections and led the state legislature to provide $32 million for modernization. An additional $3.8 billion in federal aid has also been authorized to help improve the election machinery in all 50 states, though none of that money has actually been provided yet.

Heading into yesterday's balloting, the Congress was more closely divided than at any time in almost a half-century. But Republicans might have made history by picking up seats in the House.

Only twice since the Civil War has the party in power in the White House been able to do that, and both time it was the Democrats.

The first was in 1934, during Franklin D. Roosevelt's first term. The second was four years ago, when Bill Clinton was in the White House.

But there was no question that Republicans had managed to extend their hold on the House. They took over in their landslide victory of 1994, picking up 52 House seats and ending 40 years of Democratic rule.

The last time Republicans held the House for a longer period than the present was in 1919 to 1931.

Incumbents prevail

Continuing a trend that favors the re-election of incumbents, only about one in 10 congressional seats was being seriously contested yesterday. Most members of Congress had little or no serious opposition, in part because the just-completed round of redistricting strengthened most incumbents. More than 90 percent of House members seeking re-election were all but guaranteed a victory, and the success rate might well have reached 98 percent.

Among the few incumbents to lose was Maryland Republican Constance A. Morella, who represents the Washington suburbs. Republicans also lost the Baltimore County district of victorious gubernatorial candidate Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who will be replaced by Democrat C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger.

Though his name wasn't on the ballot, Bush successfully leant his popularity to his party. The public continues to strongly approve of the way Bush is handling his job as president, according to polls that show his performance rating roughly 10 points higher than it was prior to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 last year.

Push by Bush

In what some called the most extensive midterm effort ever by a sitting president, Bush campaigned throughout the country this year, promoting Republicans running for Congress, governor and even some state legislative contests. He also raised a record $200 million-plus over the past two years for his party and its candidates.

Bush's most aggressive efforts were reserved for his home state of Texas, where the governorship and a Senate seat were at stake, and Florida. He made a dozen trips to the Sunshine State, scene of the decisive contest of the 2000 presidential election, in an effort to boost the re-election chances of his brother.

In addition, White House political strategists took an unusually active role in key Senate contests, recruiting candidates in several states. In some cases, Bush abandoned the traditional policy of staying out of contested party primaries.

In Georgia, for example, the White House got behind Republican Chambliss during primary season and the national party provided extensive support, both financial and in multiple visits by Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and other administration figures.

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