Republicans and Democrats swapped seats in the narrowly divided U.S. Senate yesterday, but early returns suggested that the GOP will keep its hold on the chamber by sweeping a string of close races in the South.
Despite a landslide loss in Illinois and possible defeats in Colorado and Pennsylvania, Republicans appeared to gain seats in Georgia and South Carolina, comfortably led in a race for a Democratic seat in North Carolina and maintained a narrow lead for a Democratic seat in Florida. Republican candidates also fought off challenges in Oklahoma and Kentucky.
Tight races in South Dakota and Alaska left the Senate's future uncertain late last night, but the Democrats apparently failed to fulfill their hope of gaining a Senate majority.
"The key thing for Republicans was that most of the competitive races were in conservative states where Bush ran well," said Larry J. Sabato, a political analyst at the University of Virginia. "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 5-1 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 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 incomplete returns last night, Republican Jim DeMint appeared to defeat Democratic challenger Inez Tenenbaum in South Carolina. And Republican Richard M. Burr was leading former Clinton chief of staff Erskine Bowles in North Carolina, where vice presidential candidate Edwards spent much of the day calling radio stations with African-American audiences in hopes of keeping the seat in Democratic hands.
Among the highlights for the Democrats was Pennsylvania, where Republican Sen. Arlen Specter narrowly led Democrat Joseph Hoeffel, despite earlier polls giving Specter a substantial advantage.
In Colorado, Democrat Ken Salazar led Republican brewery scion Pete Coors in early results. Democrats had seized on the opportunity created by Republican Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell's retirement by nominating state Attorney General Salazar - a fifth-generation Coloradan who grew up on a ranch - and capitalizing on Coors' image of wealth and of being out of touch with the middle class.
"[Salazar] is a workingman. He was dirt-poor, and he brought himself up," said Bob Hopwood, 48, a voter in Aurora, Colo., just east of Denver. "Pete Coors just has his inheritance. I don't think he's the right person for the job."
Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski in Alaska was holding off a challenge from former governor Tony Knowles, despite a well-organized Democratic campaign to highlight her inexperience and remind voters that she was appointed to her seat by her father, Gov. Frank Murkowski.
In one of the most closely watched races, Democratic Sen. Tom Daschle, the minority leader of the Senate, was separated by only a few hundred votes from Republican challenger John Thune, who in early returns held the lead. Daschle spent roughly $16 million in his quest for a fourth term, countered by about $10 million from Thune.
Democrats were incredulous 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 indicated how much was at stake in the Senate, which could soon be called on to consider Supreme Court justices and such legislative issues as 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 Sabato. "I doubt the Republicans would enjoy any Senate victory more than to beat Tom Daschle."
In Florida, with votes counted in roughly three-fourths of the precincts, former HUD Secretary Mel Martinez, who is Cuban-born, was barely leading Betty Castor, a former state senator. And in Louisiana, Republican Rep. David Vitter led several Democratic rivals. He needed 50 percent to avoid a Dec. 4 runoff.
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
"It's not just one race or one seat that's at stake here, but the future direction of the nation," said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican, during a typical pre-election stump in Colorado.
And the tactics were not subtle.
When it came to personal attacks, the Kentucky race was hard to match. Democrats ran television commercials questioning Bunning's mental fitness for office. His allies, in turn, openly speculated about Mongiardo's sexual orientation.