Webb's Small Lead Holding Up As 'Senator-Elect' Starts Staffing
Thursday, November 9, 2006
RICHMOND, Nov. 8 -- Virginia's Democratic Senate candidate, James Webb, claimed the title of senator-elect Wednesday and began organizing his congressional staff, while Republican incumbent George Allen declined to concede but was described as "realistic" about the outcome if he seeks a recount challenging Webb's thin lead.
With control of the U.S. Senate hanging in the balance, Allen dispatched teams of lawyers and operatives across Virginia in search of the votes he would need to win. Early in the day, Allen did not appear ready to relinquish his claim to an office he once saw as a springboard to the White House.
"Let the process play itself out in a dignified manner," said Ed Gillespie, a former national Republican Party chairman, speaking for the Allen campaign in front of the Virginia party headquarters. "The votes need to be accurately counted. Only at the end of that process is a winner declared."
But Webb continued to lead by approximately 7,300 votes with virtually all of Virginia's 2.3 million ballots counted Wednesday evening, and Republicans said there appeared to be little hope that glitches or math errors might uncover new GOP votes. Gillespie said Allen was "realistic," and an e-mail sent late Wednesday said the senator would make a statement "at the conclusion" of the statewide canvass of votes. The e-mail said "more details will follow from the campaign" early Thursday.
Several Republicans who are close to Allen or involved in a potential recount said privately that they doubted Allen could overcome Webb's lead, which stood at 13 times as large as George W. Bush's lead over Al Gore in Florida in 2000.
"I don't see the votes there," said one Washington Republican who has been advising Allen and spoke on condition of anonymity because he didn't want to undermine the senator's message. "It's like the old saying: 'If you're not the lead dog, the view doesn't change.' "
On Wednesday night, the Associated Press called the election for Webb, after the wire service contacted election officials in all of Virginia's 134 localities and said about half had completed their post-election canvass. The AP showed Webb beating Allen by 7,236 votes.
At Webb headquarters in Arlington, sleepy volunteers answered constantly ringing phones with a cheery new greeting: "Hello, Senator-elect Webb's office."
Still, teams of Democratic and Republican lawyers and volunteers traveled across Virginia to monitor the canvass, in which the preliminary tallies from Tuesday night are confirmed or adjusted over the next several days.
Jean Jensen, the secretary of the State Board of Elections, said the local boards would mail the final results to her by 5 p.m. Monday. There is not likely to be much significant movement in the vote totals until then, if at all. Jensen must officially certify the results by Nov. 27.
Aides said a weary Webb was spending time with his family and friends. Former Virginia governor Mark R. Warner (D) spoke with reporters on Webb's behalf.
"I know that Senator-elect Webb is looking forward to joining Senator John Warner [R-Va.] and, I think, working on the issues he talked about in the campaign, ranging from how we deal with Iraq to economic fairness to trying to make sure we get our country fixed," Warner said. "I think he will be a great addition to the United States Senate."
Warner said Webb was moving forward as a newly elected senator, despite the fact that Allen had not conceded. "Our expectation is that this will continue to be a margin of thousands," Warner said.
|James Webb unloads his car after returning to his home in Falls Church. The Democrat has claimed victory in the Senate race.( - AP)|
Within hours, Webb issued his first official statement, praising President Bush's decision to accept the resignation of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. Webb's campaign platform included a new course in Iraq, but he had declined to call for Rumsfeld's firing.
"I am pleased that we will have a new secretary of defense, but I believe that the new Senate should be the body that examines Bob Gates' qualifications for confirmation," he said in a reference to Bush's choice to succeed Rumsfeld.
Gillespie declined to say whether he thought Webb's quick action was appropriate. "The fact is, we always knew this was going to be close," he said. "It's a closely divided commonwealth. We're not surprised by the outcome."
County election boards throughout the state began the canvass Wednesday, a procedure that state officials said is undertaken regardless of the margin of victory or the possibility of a recount.
In a stuffy third-floor conference room at the Fairfax County Government Center, 12 two-person teams started examining returns generated by 1,230 voting machines in the county's 225 precincts. The process is expected to take three days, and officials plan to certify the results and ship them to the state by Sunday.
"The canvass is not over until everything has been checked and double-checked," said Margaret Luca, secretary of the Fairfax Electoral Board.
Seated at four rows of desks, the canvassers examined piles of paper strips that looked like last week's grocery receipts -- printouts of vote totals from each machine.
They were checked against tallies kept in poll books, the computer printouts listing everyone registered in a given precinct, and a form called the official statement of results, which is filled out by the chief election officer at the end of the evening.
Statewide, things seemed to be moving along with only minor incidents. In the basement of the Prince William County courthouse, for example, election workers found that one precinct had underreported its Webb vote by 10.
Lawyers for both parties said those kinds of tiny changes would not alter the election's outcome. But Gillespie charged that the Allen campaign had received initial word of other, more serious problems, including broken-down voting machines, power outages and other irregularities.
He noted that a precinct in Stafford had overstated votes for Webb by about 1,300 votes Tuesday night. The error was corrected Wednesday morning, leaving Webb with his 7,300-vote lead. "It was me," said Stafford County Registrar Ray Davis, who acknowledged accidentally writing the wrong number onto his tally sheet. "I was fatigued. We didn't check the figures last night."
Jensen, a Democrat appointed by Warner, denied the Allen camp's claims of voting machine breakdowns and other serious problems, calling them routine Election Day glitches that were quickly resolved.
"I get a little concerned that they're exaggerating, when there were lawyers for both parties in my office all day and into the night," Jensen said. Reported problems ranged from sample ballots printed in the wrong color to scattered malfunctions of voting machines that were replaced with backups. "They all got fixed."
The last of the absentee votes was counted by Wednesday afternoon, Jensen said. The only community that still had not reported complete results by last night was Isle of Wight, a county on the James River in Tidewater where a voting machine froze and has not been able to print out the tallies. About 200 votes are outstanding, officials said.
Also outstanding are provisional ballots, which are given to voters whose names do not appear on voter rolls but who say they should. Such people are allowed to vote on a paper ballot, subject to later verification of their right to vote. In last year's governor's race, there were about 5,000 provisional ballots cast, but only 18 percent were confirmed, Gillespie said.
Jensen said she did not know how many provisional ballots had been cast on Tuesday.
Some alarmed observers called the Board of Elections late Wednesday to report that several counties suddenly showed new, unreported precincts. Jensen said the precincts were added in preparation for tallying provisional ballots.
But the frantic questions from the public highlighted the intensity and the stakes of the Virginia race. Asked how she would handle a possible recount in a race the country is watching closely, Jensen said, "Sure, I'm nervous." But she said last year's recount in the contest for attorney general would serve as a dry run.
"I'm nervous about dealing with all the lawyers," she said. "They will FOIA [submit Freedom of Information Act requests for] everything but the pictures on the wall. That will be the biggest challenge."
Staff writers Bill Turque, Nick Miroff and Annie Gowen in Northern Virginia contributed to this report.