Congressional Republicans Work to Thwart Democratic Gains

Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R) trails in North Carolina despite late aggressive ads.
Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R) trails in North Carolina despite late aggressive ads. (Gerry Broome - AP)
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By Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 4, 2008

In the closing days of the campaign, congressional Republicans and their allies have launched a furious, last-minute effort to prevent Democrats from making significant gains in the House and Senate today.

One embattled incumbent, Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.), accused his opponent, Al Franken, of secretly orchestrating a lawsuit alleging that Coleman's wife received $75,000 for no-show consulting work. Another, Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), yesterday accused a federal judge and prosecutors of overseeing an "unjust trial" that resulted in Stevens's conviction on felony charges for failing to disclose gifts.

And in Wyoming, Vice President Cheney made a rare campaign appearance in his home state to support the Republican running for the House seat that Cheney himself held from 1979 to 1989 without facing a competitive reelection fight. The race is considered almost a tossup today.

Senate Democrats held out hope of gaining the nine seats needed for a filibuster-proof 60 seats, while House Democrats could add more than two dozen seats to their ranks, which would give them control of more than 60 percent of the chamber's 435 seats.

"We're going to pick up a significant number of seats that will change the face of the Senate," Sen. Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.), chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said yesterday. Calling a 60-seat majority "possible but not likely," Schumer said a Democratic majority in the upper 50s would result in sweeping changes as long as Sen. Barack Obama is elected president.

Girding for large losses, Republicans said their incumbents could win if they succeed in establishing an identity independent of President Bush, Sen. John McCain and congressional GOP leaders. "Republican candidates that have established their own personal brand and have framed their races around a personal choice will survive this," said Ken Spain, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Only a handful of House Democrats are considered vulnerable, while more than 50 Republican seats are in play. The NRCC invested $600,000 to target one prominent Democrat, Rep. John P. Murtha of Pennsylvania, a 34-year House member who has been a leading opponent of the Iraq war. Murtha raised more than $1 million in the last 13 days, and former president Bill Clinton campaigned for him in Johnstown, Pa., yesterday.

Senate Republicans have increasingly framed their reelection battles as a way to rein in a possible Obama White House and raised the specter of Democrats capturing 60 seats. A Gallup Poll last week showed voters split on the question of which party should control Congress if Obama wins, with 48 percent favoring Republicans and 47 percent favoring Democrats.

Just a few races may decide whether Democrats reach 60 seats. Republicans have given up hope in three states with retiring GOP incumbents, and Democrats hold leads in four others: New Hampshire, North Carolina, Oregon and Alaska. If Democrats win those seven races, they would need to win two of the four races in Minnesota, Georgia, Kentucky and Mississippi.

Holding a narrow lead, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) continued raising funds through the weekend, sending out missives from former House speaker Newt Gingrich and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee in recent days. After some worries last week, Democrats were buoyed by internal polls suggesting Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich had opened a sizable lead over Stevens.

Stevens, the Senate's senior Republican, bought ad time for a two-minute commercial that was expected to air last night, one week after his conviction. Yesterday, after a juror in the trial was reprimanded for lying to the judge about her father's death to get out of jury deliberations [Story, A15], he said in a statement that it was "now even clearer this was an unjust trial and a flawed verdict."

Some races saw the final moments of the campaign turn toward personal attacks.

At a debate in Georgia, former state representative Jim Martin (D) questioned his opponent, Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R), about whether he had inappropriately used political funds for golf vacations with lobbyists. Chambliss denied the allegation and accused Martin of relying heavily on liberal donations that are out of step with Georgia's political leanings. By Georgia law, a candidate must get more than 50 percent of the vote to win the race, and with an independent in the race, it's possible the race won't be resolved until a Dec. 2 runoff.

But no Senate race has gotten quite as personal as the one in Minnesota, where three candidates, the political parties and outside groups will spend well in excess of $50 million, making it the most expensive in the nation.

In a debate Sunday, Coleman accused comedian-turned-candidate Franken of working secretly to promote a lawsuit that a disgruntled Texas businessman filed against a Minnesota investment firm executive, which alleged the businessman steered $75,000 to the consulting firm at which Coleman's wife is employed.

Coleman denied the allegation, just as Franken rejected the charge that he was behind the lawsuit. The DSCC is airing ads showing Coleman refusing to answer questions from local reporters about the allegations, which prompted Coleman to put up his own ads accusing his opponents of attacking his wife's character. Republicans, for their part, are airing ads accusing Franken of not being "fit for office" because of his past satirical writings, including a guest column for Playboy that was allegedly demeaning toward women.

Trailing in North Carolina, Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R) launched a second round of ads last weekend questioning whether state Sen. Kay Hagan (D) supported a "godless" agenda because Hagan attended a fundraiser at the Boston home of a board member for a group espousing atheist views. Hagan has responded with ads forcefully declaring her Christianity and accusing Dole of "bearing false witness."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company