WASHINGTON – Republicans appeared certain to retain control of the U.S. Senate Tuesday after pulling off key early wins in the South, and they had the prospect of widening their current narrow margin by winning several Senate races that were still undecided late Tuesday night.
Democrat Barack Obama’s landslide in Illinois, putting a formerly Republican seat in the Democratic camp, was more than offset when the GOP picked up seats in South Carolina, North Carolina and Georgia while fending off fierce Democratic challenges to Republicans in Oklahoma and Kentucky.
In North Carolina, Republicans dealt a particularly symbolic blow to Democrats, as GOP Rep. Richard Burr defeated Democratic Erskine Bowles for the seat now held by Democratic vice presidential nominee John Edwards. Trailing for much of the campaign to Bowles, who had served as chief of staff to President Bill Clinton, Burr went on the attack and overcame Bowles’ early lead with the help of a burst of GOP advertising in the campaign’s final weeks.
Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., a prime GOP target, was in an urgent fight late Tuesday night to hold onto his seat. If Daschle loses his seat, it would be the first defeat for a Senate party leader since 1952 and would remove the highest-ranking Democrat in the country.
Regardless of who occupies the White House, continued Republican control of the Senate and House will be a crucial benefit to the GOP in deciding what kind of legislation is considered by Congress in the next administration. Republican domination will also give the party exclusive control over investigations that may arise over Iraq or any number of potential controversies.
Democrats had entered the contest for control of the Senate in a more difficult position than the GOP, because more of their incumbents were retiring. Republicans started the evening with a 51-48 majority in the Senate, with independent Sen. Jim Jeffords of Vermont generally voting with the Democrats.
Still undecided late Tuesday were key races in Colorado and Alaska, where Democrats hoped to pick up seats. But Democrats also had to defend seats in Louisiana and Florida, as well as Daschle’s in South Dakota.
In the House, Republicans also appeared certain to retain control. Republicans currently hold a 227-205 edge in the chamber – with two vacancies in Republican-leaning districts and one independent who generally votes with the Democrats – and only three dozen races were considered competitive. In a rare upset, Democrat Melissa Bean appeared to unseat Rep. Phil Crane, R-Ill., the longest-serving Republican in the House.
The GOP was assisted in House races by a controversial redistricting plan in Texas engineered by House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas. It re-drew electoral boundaries in a way that was likely to tip five Democratic-held districts toward a Republican majority.
Republicans had defeated three veteran Texas Democrats by late Tuesday: Rep. Charles Stenholm, a leading fiscal conservative, Rep. Martin Frost, a former member of the party’s congressional leadership, and Rep. Max Sandlin.
In the Senate, South Carolina three-term Republican congressman Jim DeMint won the seat vacated by Democratic Sen. Ernest “Fritz” Hollings, a 38-year Senate veteran. DeMint bested Democrat Inez Tenenbaum, the state’s superintendent of education, in a tight race.
Though the state has trended strongly toward Republicans in national contests over recent years, Tenenbaum had chipped away at an early lead for the Republican with advertisements attacking DeMint’s support for a national sales tax.
In Kentucky, Sen. Jim Bunning, a Hall of Fame baseball pitcher, staved off a furious challenge from his Democratic challenger, physician Daniel Mongiardo, eking out a narrow victory.
Bunning, 73, had been hobbled by a series of verbal missteps during the last few weeks of the race, enabling Mongiardo, 44, a two-term legislator, to narrow the incumbent’s lead dramatically. Once considered a safe Republican seat, the race narrowed dramatically in the campaign’s final weeks, prompting Democrats to hope for a windfall upset.
But with 99.6 percent of precincts reporting, Bunning held on with an 18,000-vote margin out of nearly 1.7 million votes cast.
In one gaffe, Bunning said he had not heard of a well-publicized incident in which a group of Army reservists in Iraq had refused to go on a mission. “I don’t watch the national news, and I don’t read the paper,” Bunning said. “I haven’t done that in six weeks. I watch Fox News to get my information.”
Obama’s easy victory in Illinois gave Democrats a seat left open by the retirement of Republican Sen. Peter Fitzgerald. But that gain was offset when the GOP’s Georgia nominee, Rep. Johnny Isakson, easily triumphed in the race for the seat held by retiring Democratic Sen. Zell Miller.
Miller, a supporter of President Bush, voted often with the GOP in Congress.
In Oklahoma, former Republican Rep. Tom Coburn beat back Democratic Rep. Brad Carson for the Senate seat vacated by GOP Sen. Don Nickles.
Coburn’s victory was another disappointment for Democrats, who had poured considerable resources into the state. Carson had argued that Coburn, a medical doctor, was too conservative for the state.
Carson, who replaced Coburn in the House in 2001, portrayed himself as a pro-gun moderate-to-conservative Democrat while Coburn called him too liberal for the state. Coburn was engulfed in a controversy about whether he had sterilized a woman without her consent.
Democrats entered the Senate race with more seats to defend – including several in conservative Southern states that were likely to vote for President Bush. Of the 34 seats decided Tuesday night, 19 were held by Democrats and 15 by Republicans.
In addition to legislation, control of the Senate is important in the confirmation of federal justices, including those nominated to the Supreme Court. Chief Justice William Rehnquist’s inability to attend court arguments this week because of treatment for thyroid cancer underscored the importance of this issue.
With four justices 70 years old or older, there is a strong likelihood the next president could appoint several justices to the court, which is closely divided on a number of controversial issues.