Democratic Hopes Rest on 2 Tight Races

By Charles Babington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 8, 2006

Democrats claimed victory in four crucial Senate races early today and held small leads in two others that would give their party the majority -- and control of both congressional chambers.

The Senate majority will turn on razor-thin races in Virginia and Montana, where recounts or legal challenges could delay the final outcome for days. Democrats moved within striking distance by ousting Republicans in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Missouri.

Republicans, facing voter hostility toward the Iraq war and the Bush administration, had hoped that the worst outcome would be a 50-to-50 Senate, allowing Vice President Cheney to break tie votes. With such a narrow margin, Senate Republicans probably would face difficult battles with the first Democratic-controlled House in a dozen years.

In every section of the country, Democrats attacked Republican incumbents for their links to President Bush, whose handling of Iraq was deeply unpopular with millions of voters. The war, coupled with Republican scandals, proved politically lethal to at least three GOP senators, including the party's third-ranking senator, Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania. A sharp-tongued conservative and Bush loyalist, Santorum fell to Democrat Robert P. Casey Jr., the state treasurer and son of a popular former governor.

Another two-term Republican, Mike DeWine of Ohio, was hurt by events largely beyond his control, namely a string of scandals involving Ohio Republicans. Rep. Sherrod Brown (D), who touted his vote against the Iraq invasion, successfully hammered DeWine on his ties to the administration.

In heavily Democratic Rhode Island, Sen. Lincoln D. Chafee (R) stressed his independence from Bush and attacked the record of Democratic nominee Sheldon Whitehouse, a former state attorney general. But even his family's famous name could not save Chafee this time.

Missouri's Senate race had been close for weeks, with Democratic challenger Claire McCaskill attacking first-term Sen. James M. Talent's ties to Bush. McCaskill, the state auditor, came out on top after campaigning feverishly in Missouri's rural areas and small towns, where Democrats have faltered in past elections.

Republican hopes of grabbing Democratic seats in Maryland and New Jersey faltered, as spirited and well-funded campaigns appeared to fall short in states that traditionally are not friendly GOP turf. But Republicans won a tough contest in Tennessee.

And three-term Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (Conn.), who lost the Democratic nomination to antiwar candidate Ned Lamont in August, was elected as an independent. He will caucus with the Democrats.

Democrats needed six new seats to take over the Senate, where the GOP's 55 to 45 advantage was built largely on victories in the South two years ago. This year, many of the toughest contests were in the Northeast and in heartland areas such as Ohio and Missouri.

The Democratic strategy of criticizing Bush's war strategy -- without necessarily offering an alternative -- was effective, according to nationwide surveys of voters exiting polling places. Clear majorities of respondents said the Iraq war was important or extremely important to them, and most of them backed Democratic candidates.

The exit polls also suggested that public corruption may have played a bigger role in the election than many strategists expected. That helped Democrats in a year when scandals involving lobbyist Jack Abramoff and former GOP representatives Tom DeLay (Tex.) and Mark Foley (Fla.) made headlines for weeks.

Some Republicans caused their own problems. Sen. George Allen (R) injured himself by publicly taunting a Democratic campaign worker who is Indian American and by awkwardly handling news of his Jewish ancestry. Democrat James Webb, a former Reagan administration official, remained locked in a tight battle with Allen early today.

In Montana, scandals and gaffes hurt Sen. Conrad Burns (R) during the summer, and he spent the fall trying to catch Democrat Jon Tester. Burns accepted contributions from -- and aided the clients of -- Abramoff, the disgraced lobbyist. He also publicly criticized out-of-state firefighters who had come to Montana's aid. Tester, president of the state Senate, said the three-term incumbent was out of touch with his constituents after 18 years in Washington.

The Tennessee race to replace departing Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R) drew national attention, in part because of controversial ads aimed at Democratic nominee Harold E. Ford Jr., who is black. Former Chattanooga mayor Bob Corker said Ford, a five-term House member from Memphis, was too liberal for the state, and won a narrow victory.

In New Jersey, Sen. Robert Menendez (D) held off a strong challenge by Republican Thomas H. Kean Jr., who had accused him of having of ties to corrupt state officials and contractors.

In Maryland, the GOP hoped to capture the seat of retiring Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes (D) by nominating a high-profile African American, Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele. But Democratic Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin's by-the-books campaign, which stressed his 20 years in the House, made him the winner.

In Minnesota, Republicans once had high hopes of grabbing the seat being vacated by Sen. Mark Dayton (D). But Rep. Mark Kennedy (R) fell to Amy Klobuchar (D), the Hennepin County attorney.

The Senate will have two independent members who will caucus with the Democrats: Lieberman and Rep. Bernard Sanders of Vermont, a self-described socialist who succeeded the retiring Sen. James M. Jeffords, also an independent. In New York, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D) breezed past GOP challenger John Spencer, positioning her for what many believe will be a 2008 presidential bid.

The GOP failed to recruit strong candidates in several Republican-leaning states, resulting in easy reelections for Democrats Kent Conrad (N.D.) and Ben Nelson (Neb.). Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) handily defeated mistake-prone Rep. Katherine Harris (R), who had played a key role in the president's contested win in Florida in 2000. Republicans once hoped to oust Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D), but she defeated Michael Bouchard (R).

In Arizona, Sen. Jon Kyl (R) survived a challenge from former Democratic Party official Jim Pederson. In Nevada, Sen. John Ensign (R) defeated Jack Carter (D), son of former president Jimmy Carter. And in Washington state, Sen. Maria Cantwell (D) fended off insurance executive Mike McGavick (R).

Democratic winners also included Thomas R. Carper (Del.), Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), Daniel K. Akaka (Hawaii), Jeff Bingaman (N.M.), Herb Kohl (Wis.), Robert C. Byrd (W.Va.) and Edward M. Kennedy (Mass.). GOP winners included Richard G. Lugar (Ind.), Olympia J. Snowe (Maine), Kay Bailey Hutchison (Tex.), Orrin G. Hatch (Utah), Craig Thomas (Wyo.) and Trent Lott (Miss.).

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company