GOP appears to keep majority in House; Senate still unclear

W By Janet Hook

wASHINGTON – Republicans appeared to retain their majority in the House Tuesday night while Democrats struggled to keep control of the Senate, capping a bitter, expensive campaign that tested President Bush’s ability to translate his own popularity into political gains for the GOP.

Early returns boded well for Republicans to keep and possibly expand their majority in the House, which would defy a political history because the president’s party usually loses House seats in midterm elections.

Even before all House results were in, some Democrats were treating it as a forgone conclusion that they had fallen short once again of regaining the majority status they lost in 1994.

“Tomorrow begins the election of 2004,” said House Minority Whip Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.

The bottom line in the Senate was unclear because a handful of races were running neck-and-neck late into the night. But Republicans won a big victory in Georgia, where GOP Rep. Saxby Chambliss scored an upset victory over Sen. Max Cleland. They also managed to hold onto all five of the open Senate seats previously held by the GOP: in Texas, North Carolina, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Tennessee.

Republicans won another high-profile victory in New Hampshire, when Rep. John Sununu triumphed over Democratic Gov. Jean Shaheen. That had been seen as Democrats’ best hope of picking up a seat from the GOP. But Democrats did score a big victory in Arkansas, where GOP Sen. Tim Hutchinson, battered by controversy over his private life, was defeated by Democrat Mark Pryor.

That left the balance of power in the Senate hinging on the outcome of races in a handful of remaining contests: in Colorado, South Dakota, Missouri and Minnesota.

But if Democrats come out with no more than their current one-seat advantage, the final balance of power in the Senate will not be known for weeks. That is because in Louisiana, front-running Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu did not win 50 percent of the vote in a crowded field. That forces her into a Dec. 7 runoff.

In early Senate results, three Washington, D.C., veterans–former Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg, a Democrat, and former Cabinet officials Lamar Alexander and Elizabeth Hanford Dole, both Republicans–won return engagements to the Capitol.

Lautenberg, as expected, triumphed in New Jersey. Alexander was headed to victory in Tennessee and Dole, wife of former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, R-Kan., won in North Carolina. She defeated Democrat Erskine Bowles, former White House chief of staff for President Clinton, in the nation’s costliest Senate campaign.

Also headed to Congress was one of the key figures in Florida’s hotly contested 2000 presidential recount. Republican Katherine Harris, Florida’s former secretary of state, won her bid for an open House seat.

Far less information about voting trends was available after the polls closed than in past years because media organizations could not rely on exit poll data from Voter News Service, which they usually use to project election results. Sensitive to mistakes made in calling the 2000 presidential election, VNS announced late in the day that it could not guarantee the accuracy of its data.

The glitch added a suspenseful and chaotic ending to a campaign that has been anything but ordinary. Candidates and the national political parties have been buffeted by a series of traumatic events, such as last year’s terrorist attacks, the plunging stock market, a spate of corporate scandals and the threat of war with Iraq. And one of the nation’s most closely watched Senate races was roiled less than two weeks before election day by the death of Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., in a plane crash.

Which party controls Capitol Hill is of enormous consequence for Bush, who wants a GOP-dominated Congress that will be more friendly to his agenda of more tax cuts, higher defense spending and conservative judges as he prepares for his own reelection bid in 2004. Bush threw himself into eleventh-hour campaigning for GOP candidates with a fervor that turned an essentially issueless midterm election into something of a referendum on his own leadership.

“I hope people vote,” Bush said Tuesday monring after casting his own ballot at a fire station in Crawford, Texas, near his ranch. “I’m encouraging all people across this country to vote.”

All 435 seats in the House were on ballots, along with 34 of the Senate’s 100 seats. But most incumbents coasted to re-election.

As a result, as Election Day dawned control of the two chambers seemed to hinge on roughly two dozen House races scattered across the country and about eight close Senate contests. With neither party enjoying a strong tailwind of national momentum, political operatives poured over race-by-race developments in the campaign’s closing days and focused on massive efforts to get their supporters to go to the polls.

“We’ve got 35 to 40 different races being run on 35 to 40 different issues,” said Erik Smith, spokesman for House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt, D-Mo.

Whichever party prevails in the House and the Senate, it is all but certain to be by the kind of narrow margins that have been typical after the last two elections. These close divisions have created a state of political parity that has made it difficult for either party to make major strides on their legislative agenda.

Heading into Election Day, the breakdown in the House was 223 Republicans, 208 Democrats and one independent who usually votes with the Democrats, with three vacant seats. That means that Republicans would lose control of the House if they suffer a net loss of six seats.

After Wellstone’s death, the Senate consisted of 49 Democrats, 49 Republicans and one independent who sides with the Democrats. (Dean Barkley, the independent appointed to temporarily replace Wellstone, was sworn in Tuesday but will serve only a limited time, perhaps only a few weeks.)

Thus, a net loss of a single Democratic seat would result in Republican control because in a 50-50 Senate, Vice President Dick Cheney would have the power to break the tie in favor of the GOP.

The Democratic-controlled Senate has proved a formidable obstacle to Bush’s legislative agenda. That’s why the president has spent so much time drumming up support for GOP candidates around the country. In the last five days of the campaign alone, Bush campaigned in 17 cites across 15 states. All told, his fund raising in this election cycle brought in more than $140 million for Republican House and Senate candidates.

In seeking to increase GOP numbers in Congress, Bush was swimming against the tide of history. Traditionally, the president’s party loses House and Senate seats in the first midterm election after he takes office. Indeed, only once since the Civil War has the president’s party gained House seats in his first midterm election.

If Bush bucks that trend, said GOP pollster Bill McInturff, it will be “an enormous asset” in pushing his legislative agenda. He will have shown that he “still has juice,” McInturff said.

Early House returns provided encouragement to Republican hopes.

Kentucky GOP Rep. Anne M. Northup, considered one of her party’s most vulnerable incumbents, triumphed over Democrat Jack Conway. In Indiana, in one of most hotly contested open House seats, GOP businessman Chris Chocola appeared poised to capture a seat held by a retiring Democrat. And in Florida, Democratic Rep. Karen L. Thurman trailed her Republican challenger.

Democrats cheered gains in other contests, including the defeat of GOP Rep. Connie Morella, R-Md., at the hands of Democrat Chris Van Hollen. But party strategists privately conceded that winning a majority was out of reach.

Pelosi acknowledged that many rank-and-file Democrats were falling short because they believed the party faltered in this campaign by being too timid in presenting an alternative to the GOP.

“We may not have been strong enough with our message,” Pelosi said. “I do think it behooves the national party to be clear enough about the distinction between the two parties.”

Lautenberg’s Senate victory in New Jersey keeps the seat in Democratic hands, rescuing the party from its likely loss if Sen. Robert Torricelli had not dropped his bid for re-election little over a month ago. Torricelli was plagued by ethical questions about his personal finances.

Alexander’s victory in Tennessee keeps that seat, now held by retiring Sen. Fred Thompson, in Republican hands.

Dole’s victory disappointed Democrats, who had been encouraged by gathering momentum for Bowles in the campaign’s waning days.

Appearing before cheering supporters with her husband, she asked Bowles supporters to “please give me a chance because I intend to be a senator for all of North Carolina.”