GOP gains control of Congress

R By Dan Balz

republicans recaptured control of the Senate and were poised to expand their majority in the House Tuesday night as GOP candidates rode the back of President Bush’s popularity and turned a competitive midterm campaign into an election that defied the odds of history.

The last piece fell into place early Wednesday morning when Missouri slipped into the Republican column after Sen. Jean Carnahan, D-Mo., called former Rep. Jim Talent, R-Mo., and conceded defeat. Talent’s victory secured a new GOP majority in the Senate, an outcome that had appeared almost out of reach to party leaders a day earlier and that left Democrats dispirited and looking for scapegoats.

Republicans also picked up a Senate seat in Georgia, maintained control of two crucial open seats in North Carolina and New Hampshire, held on to Colorado and were leading in Texas early Wednesday morning. Democrats gained a seat in Arkansas but could not turn the other competitive races in their direction.

In the House, the GOP was closing in another majority after blunting Democratic challenges in key competitive races and picking up several Democratic-held seats, with a strong possibility that they would enlarge the majority that Democrats had been eroding in the past three elections.

In gubernatorial races, Democrats claimed three big prizes by winning in Pennsylvania, Illinois and Michigan. But Republicans retained power in Florida, where Gov. Jeb Bush easily defeated Democrat Bill McBride in a race that echoed with the bitter memories of the Florida recount battle two years ago. The GOP also scored the biggest upset of the night in ousting Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes, who was seen as coasting toward a second term not long ago.

Republicans were attempting to turn history on its head Tuesday night, given that the party that controls the White House almost always loses seats in the midterm election of a new presidency. But Bush, with his approval rating buoyed by his handling of the war against terrorism, threw himself into the battle with a campaign. He blitzed through competitive House and Senate races in the final weeks of the campaign and appeared to have been repaid by a surge of Republican votes.

GOP victories early in the night put Democrats on the defensive. In North Carolina, Republican Elizabeth Dole held off a late challenge from former Clinton White House chief of staff Erskine Bowles, and the GOP fended off another strong Democratic challenge in New Hampshire, where Rep. John Sununu stopped Gov. Jeanne Shaheen. Later in Georgia, Rep. C. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., defeated Sen. Max Cleland in a race crucial to Democratic hopes of retaining their one-seat majority.

One bright spot for the Democrats was Arkansas, where attorney general Mark Pryor, son of former senator David Pryor, defeated Sen. Tim Hutchinson, considered the GOP’s most vulnerable incumbent heading into Tuesday’s balloting.

But the Democratic odds of holding their majority hinged on the outcome of races in Minnesota, Missouri, South Dakota, Colorado and Louisiana. In Colorado, Sen. Wayne Allard, R-Colo., appeared headed toward victory against former U.S. attorney Tom Strickland.

In South Dakota, Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., had a tiny lead against Rep. John Thune, R-S.D., in what had been seen as the closest race in the country on election eve. In Minnesota, where counting was slow, former vice president Walter Mondale (D) was running behind former St. Paul mayor Norm Coleman (R) in very early returns on a night when Republicans ran well in other races. Mondale replaced Sen. Paul D. Wellstone, D-Minn., on the ballot after Wellstone was killed in a plane crash.

In the open GOP seat in Texas, where Democrats were looking to spring a surprise in the president’s home state, Republican state attorney general John Cornyn was leading Democratic former Dallas mayor Ron Kirk, seeking to become the first African American to go to the Senate from the state since Reconstruction.

Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., led the field in Louisiana, but fell short of the necessary 50 percent and was thrown into a Dec. 7 runoff against Republican election commissioner Suzanne Haik Terrell.

Veteran senators in both parties easily won re-election. Democratic Sens. Joseph R. Biden, Del., Dick Durbin, Ill., Tom Harkin, Iowa, John Kerry, Mass., Carl Levin, Mich., Max Baucus, Mont., Jack Reed, R.I., and John D. Rockefeller IV, W.Va., were returned to office.

Republicans who were re-elected included Sens. Jeff Sessions, Ala., Larry Craig, Idaho, Pat Roberts, Kan., Mitch McConnell, Ky., Susan Collins, Maine, Thad Cochran, Miss., Chuck Hagel, Neb., James Inhofe, Okla., Gordon Smith, Ore., John Warner, Va., and Mike Enzi, Wyo.

In New Jersey, Democratic former Sen. Frank Lautenberg defeated Republican business executive Doug Forrester. Lautenberg was put on the ballot after Sen. Robert Torricelli, D-N.J., quit when polls showed he was likely to lose the race because of ethics problems.

Republicans held on to open seats in Tennessee and South Carolina, as expected. In Tennessee, Republican former governor Lamar Alexander easily defeated Rep. Bob Clement, D-Tenn., while in South Carolina, Rep. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., defeated Democratic former college president Alex Sanders.

In House races, Republicans sought to add to their majority, after suffering losses in the last three elections. Rep. Anne Northup, R-Ky., a key target of Democrats, was narrowly leading her challenger with four-fifths of the vote counted, and in Indiana, Republican Chris Chocola defeated representative Jill Long Thompson in an open seat held by Democrats. In Florida, Rep. Karen Thurman, D-Fla., a top GOP target, lost. But Democrats knocked off one prominent GOP incumbent in Maryland, where state Sen. Christopher Van Hollen defeated Rep. Constance A. Morella.

Democrats had anticipated a good night in the gubernatorial races. Democratic former Philadelphia mayor Ed Rendell defeated GOP attorney general Mike Fisher in Pennsylvania, and Rep. Rod Blagojevich, D-Ill., beat Republican attorney general Jim Ryan in Illinois. In Michigan, attorney general Jennifer Granholm defeated Lt. Gov. Dick Posthumus. In Wisconsin, Democratic attorney general Jim Doyle defeated Republican Gov. Scott McCallum.

But Republicans took at least three from the Democrats. In Maryland, Rep. Robert Ehrlich upset Democatic Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. In South Carolina, former Rep. Mark Sanford upended Gov. Jim Hodges. And in New Hampshire, business executive Craig Benson defeated Democrat Mark Fernald.

Gubernatorial races proved extraordinarily volatile. Republicans won Northeast seats targeted by Democrats. In Massachusetts, Republican businesses executive Mitt Romney defeated state treasurer Shannon O’Brien, while in Rhode Island, GOP business executive Donald Carcieri defeated Democrat Myrth York, who lost her third straight race for governor. But in a surprise, Democrats won in Oklahoma, where Democratic state Sen. Brad Henry defeated former representative Steve Largent. In Wyoming, Democrat Dave Freudenthal led Republican Eli Bebout.

New York Republican Gov. George Pataki and GOP Texas Gov. Rick Perry coasted to victory to go along with Bush’s success in the big states. In California, Democratic Gov. Gray Davis was in a close race with Bill Simon (R) in early returns.

In two states controlled by independent governors, the parties split. Republican State House Majority Leader Tim Pawlenty won in Minnesota, while Democratic Rep. David Baldacci captured the governorship in Maine.

Going into Tuesday’s elections, the Senate was evenly split, with 49 Democrats, 49 Republicans and two independents. In the House, Republicans had 223 seats to 208 for the Democrats, with one independent (who votes with the Democrats) and three vacancies. The GOP has 27 of the 50 governorships to 21 for the Democrats, with two states led by independents.

No matter the outcome, one party was destined to make history. The party that holds the White House normally loses House seats in the first midterm election of a new president’s first time, with the only exception being the election of 1934, during President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first term, when Democrats gained seats.

Democrats were running up against another historical oddity, which is that only once in his century has a party gained seats in four consecutive elections. After their shellacking in 1994, when they lost 52 seats and control of the House, Democrats picked up seats in the past three elections. A net gain in this election would go against history’s trends.

First midterm elections are often a referendum on a new president’s performance, but this year Bush was hardly an issue, creating an environment far more favorable than normal for GOP candidates. Bush’s approval rating, which stands somewhere between the low and high sixties, makes him the most popular midterm president at least since Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Although the president’s ratings have slid significantly since he hit about 90 percent approval after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, they remained high enough to make him an unattractive target to many Democratic candidates. In some states, Democratic challengers embraced the president’s tax cut in their own elections.

Unlike some presidents, Bush did not shrink from risking his political capital in the elections. He proved to be the most prodigious fundraiser in the history of politics, raising more than $140 million on behalf of GOP candidates and state parties around the country this year. Even more significant, however, was the commitment he made in the last weeks to campaign in the most competitive races. Bush’s last swing alone took him to 15 states in five days.

Through much of the year, Democrats saw the weak economy as their most powerful weapon, but were constantly frustrated by their inability to turn the election into a clear referendum on that issue.