Key wins strengthen GOP hold on Senate


Republicans tightened their hold on the U.S. Senate yesterday, increasing their one-vote majority with a string of victories across the South and apparently defeating the leader of the Senate Democrats, Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota.

Despite a landslide loss in Illinois and an apparent defeat in Colorado, Republicans gained seats in Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina and Louisiana, and maintained a lead for a Democratic seat in Florida. Republican candidates also fought off challenges in Oklahoma, Kentucky and Pennsylvania.

Republicans were guaranteed at least 52 seats in the next Congress as of early today - one more than they held before Election Day - with the winners in three races still undetermined.

The Democrats' dim fortunes were best displayed in South Dakota, where Daschle was trailing Republican challenger John Thune by more than 5,000 votes with 85 percent of the vote counted. A loss by Daschle would be a stunning blow to the Democrats, who went into the 2004 contest hoping to win control of the upper chamber. Daschle spent roughly $16 million in his quest for a fourth term, countered by about $10 million from Thune.

Democrats were unsettled that their Senate leader would face such a tight and contentious campaign.

"Why would anyone in South Dakota want to give up, when you have the possibility of a Democratic president, the chance to have the Democratic leader represent you in the Senate?" U.S. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy asked last night during an interview with CNN.

But analysts said races like Daschle's also reflected how much was at stake in the Senate, which could soon be called on to confirm Supreme Court justices and tackle issues including prescription drug benefits and Social Security reform.

"Daschle has basically become Bush's nemesis, and that's been a very dangerous position for him in a relatively conservative state," said Larry J. Sabato, a political analyst at the University of Virginia. "I doubt the Republicans would enjoy any Senate victory more than to beat Tom Daschle."

The races in South Dakota and Florida, and another in Alaska, left the Senate's future uncertain late last night, but the Democrats failed to fulfill their hope of gaining a Senate majority. The Republicans also were poised to increase their 12-seat advantage in the House of Representative, beating four Democrats in Texas and gaining an open seat in Kentucky.

"The nation spoke that we're on the right course, and we'll stay on that course and hopefully accelerate it," said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee. He said the results showed that voters rejected Democratic "obstructionism" in the Senate.

"The key thing for Republicans was that most of the competitive races were in conservative states where Bush ran well," said Sabato. "The Democrats needed a lot of momentum, and it looks early on like they're not getting it in the right places."

The Republican Party went into Election Day in possession of 51 of the chamber's 100 seats, while the Democrats held 48 seats. Vermont Sen. James Jeffords, an independent, typically votes with the Democrats.

And the Democrats faced a steep climb to reach a majority, the key to controlling the chamber's legislative schedule and the leadership of its committees. Of the 33 contested seats in yesterday's election, 19 were already held by Democrats.

Republicans all but conceded a seat in Illinois long before Election Day, where Democrat Barack Obama defeated Republican Alan Keyes by a nearly 3-1 margin to become the Senate's only African-American member. But that party power shift was quickly offset by another lopsided race in Georgia, where Republican Rep. Johnny Isakson defeated Rep. Denise L. Majette to replace retiring Sen. Zell Miller, a Democrat.

Most incumbents, including Democratic Vermont Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Democratic Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh and Arizona Sen. John McCain, a Republican, faced weak opposition and won easily, but some veteran politicians fought off close races.

One of the closest was in Kentucky, where Republican Sen. Jim Bunning eked out a roughly 18,000-vote margin, out of more than 1.7 million cast. The former major league pitcher stumbled into a hot contest with Democrat Daniel Mongiardo after a series of widely publicized gaffes, such as calling his opponent a look-alike for Saddam Hussein's son and admitting that he doesn't read or watch the news.

Republicans also kept their seat in a hard-fought race in Oklahoma, where former Rep. Tom Coburn won the seat of retiring Sen. Don Nickles. Coburn, a licensed obstetrician, had battled criticism from a former patient who said he sterilized her, but was able to beat Democratic candidate Brad Carson with relative ease.

Democrats had hoped to win at least one of those races to improve their position in the Senate, especially because of the races waged for Democratic seats in the South. The retirements of Democratic Sens. Bob Graham in Florida, John B. Breaux in Louisiana, John Edwards in North Carolina and Ernest F. Hollings in South Carolina gave Republicans a good chance to pad their Senate majority.

In nearly complete returns early today, Republican Jim DeMint defeated Democratic challenger Inez Tenenbaum in South Carolina. And Republican Richard M. Burr comfortably led former Clinton chief of staff Erskine Bowles in North Carolina, where vice presidential candidate Edwards had spent much of yesterday calling radio stations with African-American audiences in hopes of keeping the seat in Democratic hands.

In Pennsylvania, Republican Sen. Arlen Specter defeated Democrat Joseph Hoeffel by roughly 9 percentage points, with more than 90 percent of the votes counted. In Louisiana, where voting laws would have forced a run-off if no candidate received more than half the votes, Republican David Vitter had 51.6 percent of the vote in nearly complete returns.

In Colorado, with more than 80 percent of the votes counted, Democrat Ken Salazar was leading Republican brewery scion Pete Coors to seize on the opportunity created by Republican Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell. The Democrats' nomination of state Attorney General Salazar - a fifth-generation Coloradan who grew up on a ranch - capitalized on Coors' image of wealth and of being out of touch with the middle class.

Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski in Alaska was holding off a challenge from former governor Tony Knowles, despite a Democratic campaign to highlight her inexperience and remind voters that she was appointed to her seat by her father, Gov. Frank Murkowski.

In Florida, with votes counted in more than 90 percent of the precincts, former HUD Secretary Mel Martinez, who is Cuban-born, was leading Betty Castor, a former state senator.

Leaders of both parties barnstormed throughout the nation in the last weeks of the campaign as the prospects of a power shift began to materialize in the polls. Both national parties poured millions of dollars into television.

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