Republicans yesterday expanded their slender majority in the Senate, grabbing seats from the Democratic Party in at least four southern states, staving off challenges in other tight races and threatening to topple the Democratic leader.
Republican pickups came in North and South Carolina, Georgia and Louisiana, where Democratic retirements had given the GOP opportunities in its base region. Early this morning, it also appeared that Republican Mel R. Martinez, the former secretary of housing and urban development, was headed for victory in Florida, in the battle for the seat vacated by outgoing Democratic Sen. Bob Graham.
Meanwhile, Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) was in the political fight of his life. With most of the votes counted, he trailed Republican John Thune, a former House member, by more than 9,000 votes. But Daschle spokesman Dan Pfeiffer insisted there were still "a lot of votes to be counted," including ones from Indian reservations where Daschle's popularity is high.
The overall results were a resounding disappointment to Democrats, who were hoping to exploit the closeness of as many as 10 of the 34 Senate races this year to retake control of the Senate. The Republicans, who hold a slim 51-vote majority, were poised to expand their majority by at least two seats and as many as four, depending on the final outcomes in South Dakota and Alaska.
Although the expanded GOP margin would still be well short of the 60 needed to push through legislation without risk of Democratic filibusters, the strengthened position could ease the passage of major legislation and the approval of judicial appointments, should President Bush secure reelection. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) would be far less dependent on the votes of a group of moderate Republicans from the Northeast to pass legislation.
There were two bright spots for the Democrats: the overwhelming victory of Illinois state Sen. Barack Obama in his bid to succeed retiring U.S. Sen. Peter Fitzgerald (R) and Democrat Ken Salazar's victory over Republican Pete Coors for the Colorado Senate seat held by retiring GOP Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell.
A rising Democratic star, Obama easily won in Illinois, defeating Republican Alan Keyes in the first Senate race between two African-Americans.
Although Coors's role as chairman of Coors Brewing Co. gave him instant name recognition throughout Colorado, Salazar was able to offset that advantage by capitalizing on his ties to the Hispanic community and his experience as state attorney general.
For a while yesterday, it appeared that Democrats might pick up another Republican-held seat, that of veteran Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.). However, Specter, a GOP moderate who earlier this year survived a tough primary challenge from a more conservative opponent, defeated Rep. Joseph M. Hoeffel III (D-Pa.).
A surprisingly strong Democratic challenge also fell short in Kentucky, where Republican Jim Bunning defeated Democrat Daniel Mongiardo, a little known Democratic state senator.
In Oklahoma, former representative Tom Coburn (R) defeated Rep. Brad Carson (D) for the seat of retiring Sen. Don Nickles (R), spoiling Democratic hopes for a takeover there.
In Alaska, another state in which Democrats held hopes of taking back a seat from the GOP, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R) held a seven-point lead over former governor Tony Knowles (D) with half the precincts in. Knowles charged that Murkowski got her Senate seat through nepotism rather than merit. Her father, Frank Murkowski, appointed her to the seat he had occupied after he was elected governor two years ago.
But Murkowski campaigned hard and argued that Alaska would benefit from keeping intact the state's GOP team consisting of her father, herself and Sen. Ted Stevens, chairman of the Appropriations Committee.
In the Georgia Senate race, three-term Rep. Johnny Isakson (R) defeated Rep. Denise L. Majette (D) to claim the seat of retiring Democratic Sen. Zell Miller. The maverick Miller has long been estranged from the Democrats and he delivered the keynote address at the Republican National Convention this summer.