WASHINGTON - Despite his conviction last month on corruption charges, Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens, the nation's longest-serving Republican senator, clung tenuously to his seat yesterday as congressional Democrats exulted in their election gains elsewhere around the country.
While the Democrats expanded their majorities in the House and the Senate, the outcome of a number of races could remain in doubt for several more weeks.
Georgia's Senate race appeared headed for a runoff in December, and the Senate race in Oregon was too close to call. In Minnesota, Republican Sen. Norm Coleman eked out an apparent victory over Democrat Al Franken, but a recount is required because the margin was less than 0.5 percent.
In the political drama unfolding in Alaska, Stevens - in perhaps Tuesday's biggest surprise - narrowly led Democrat Mark Begich.
If Stevens wins, he is likely to face an effort by his Senate colleagues to expel him. That has generated speculation that Gov. Sarah Palin, the Republican vice presidential nominee, would seek to succeed Stevens, who is 84 and has been in the Senate since 1968.
Democrats expanded their control in the Senate to at least 56 seats, which includes two independents, who tend to caucus with the Democrats.
Democrats knocked off Republican Sens. Elizabeth Dole of North Carolina and John Sununu of New Hampshire while losing none of their own, but they appeared to be falling short of the 60 seats they need to overcome Republican-led filibusters that could stymie their initiatives.
In Minnesota, Coleman led Franken, who rose to fame as a performer and writer on Saturday Night Live, by 477 votes out of more than 2.46 million cast. In Georgia, Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss was falling just short of the 50 percent needed to avoid a Dec. 2 runoff against Democrat Jim Martin. In Oregon, Republican Sen. Gordon Smith held a slim lead over Democrat Jeff Merkley yesterday afternoon with more than 20 percent of the votes still to be counted.
Democrats were already contemplating changes.
Rep. Henry A. Waxman of California is planning to challenge Rep. John D. Dingell of Michigan for the chairmanship of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, a major battleground for climate-change legislation. Dingell, an auto industry ally, and Waxman have feuded over tougher regulation of vehicle emissions.
"Some of the most important challenges we face - energy, climate change and health care - are under the jurisdiction of the commerce committee," Waxman said yesterday.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid plans to meet with Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman this week to discuss his future. Returned to the Senate two years ago as an independent after losing the Democratic primary in Connecticut, Lieberman caucuses with the Democrats and has helped them hold a slim majority. But some in the party have called for him to be stripped of his chairmanship of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee because of his strong support - including a speech at the Republican National Convention - of GOP presidential candidate John McCain.
House Democrats - who now hold 235 of the House's 435 seats - picked up at least 19 seats, including an Alabama district that overwhelmingly voted for President Bush four years ago.
"Last night was a great night," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said yesterday. "The American people spoke out loudly and clearly that they wanted a new direction for America. And they voted in large numbers for change."
But at least four Democratic incumbents were ousted, including first-term Rep. Tim Mahoney of Florida, who was caught up in an adultery scandal.
In the Alaska contest, Stevens led Begich by about 3,300 votes, but more than 60,000 ballots remained uncounted. The outcome might not be known for 15 days, the time that state elections officials have to tally the official results.
The night before the election, Stevens went on television, vowing to appeal his conviction on corruption charges stemming from his failure to report gifts and home remodeling work from an oil services company. "Sometimes innocent men are found guilty," he said.
Stevens' campaign manager, Mike Tibbles, asserted yesterday that, if trends continue, it is "almost mathematically impossible" for his candidate to lose. But Begich, the mayor of Anchorage, refused to concede yesterday and said he was confident that late-counted ballots would move him ahead.
"I would just say to Senator Stevens and his team, this race ain't over yet. We've got a long haul," he said at a news conference.