With the nation transfixed by the presidential election recount in Florida, the two parties have launched what could prove to be an equally intense battle over the whisker-thin results in a handful of congressional races across the country.
Election officials were busy surveying the results in four close races in Florida, Michigan, Minnesota and New Jersey, while a fifth contest in California may soon come under scrutiny. Democrats and Republicans have dispatched lawyers to monitor vote counts in those districts, and lawmakers are steeling themselves for what may be one or more election challenges in the House.
The most fiercely contested House race is in central New Jersey, where Rep. Rush Holt (D) emerged election night with a 56-vote lead over former representative Dick Zimmer (R). Officials were also canvassing the votes yesterday in elections that produced wins for three Republicans: Florida Rep. Clay Shaw, Michigan state Sen. Mike Rogers and Minnesota businessman Mark Kennedy.
In the Washington state Senate race, incumbent Slade Gorton (R) was clinging to a 5,691-vote lead over former Real Networks executive Maria Cantwell (D)--out of more than 1.77 million votes counted. But officials were still tabulating more than 625,000 absentee ballots, which could take weeks.
The outcome of such races are critical given the GOP's razor-thin margin in both chambers. A Cantwell win would tie the Senate, while Democrats would slice the House Republicans' nine-seat advantage to five seats if the apparent results in Minnesota and Florida are reversed.
The counts could also set the stage for a bitter partisan feud in the House, which, under the Constitution, has sole jurisdiction over its membership.
The House is still haunted by a dispute over a narrow 1984 election in Indiana's "Bloody 8th" District, which poisoned relations between Republicans and Democrats. In that case, the then-Democratic-controlled House refused to seat Republican Richard McIntyre--who was certified by Indiana's secretary of state--after determining that Democrat Frank McCloskey had won the seat by four votes.
Rep. Bill Thomas (R-Calif.), who chairs the House Administration Committee overseeing such contests, said he learned his lesson in 1984: "Never take anything for granted and always have two votes to your opponent's one. That's what I took from it, because that's how they operated."
In New Jersey's 12th District, both sides were trying to be civilized Tuesday night. Talking to each other by telephone, Holt and Zimmer agreed that neither would declare victory until the official tally was produced.
But as the count continued yesterday, the Zimmer campaign unleashed a litany of allegations of voting irregularities even as it expressed confidence that Zimmer was ahead and would be elected to the seat he held until an unsuccessful Senate bid in 1996.
Mark Matzen, Holt's campaign manager, accused the Zimmer campaign of "saber rattling" because it was trailing. "They understand we're ahead in the count," Matzen said. "What they're trying to do is to lay the foundation for a fight on the floor of the House" to challenge Holt's election if he emerges the official winner.
A final result in New Jersey is being delayed by the need to count more than 1,000 temporary ballots filled out by voters whose names did not appear on official voter lists Tuesday. The process may not be completed until next week.
"We haven't gotten to the point of saying we want a recount, nor has Zimmer gotten to that point, because neither of us knows what the final tally is," a Holt campaign official said.
In Florida, the controversy surrounding the presidential recount filtered down to the hotly contested election between Shaw and state Rep. Elaine Bloom. Mirroring a request by Vice President Gore's campaign, Bloom filed a petition with election supervisors for a manual recount in the district, which includes Palm Beach County, scene of what the Gore campaign claims were some of the worst voting irregularities in the state.
The initial recount in Palm Beach, Broward and Dade counties yesterday showed that Shaw had finished 586 votes ahead of Bloom.
The national focus on Florida only seemed to add to the intensity--some said it was bordering on hysteria--surrounding the election for the district that hugs the Atlantic coastline from Juno Beach in the north through Palm Beach to Miami Beach in the south.
"The whole system is just in a chaotic mode right now," said Julie Robinson, spokeswoman for the Bloom campaign.
Shaw, a senior member of the Ways and Means Committee, proclaimed victory yesterday morning for a second time in two days.
"We had an election Tuesday. We had a recount yesterday. At some point you have to accept the will of the people," said Sean Spicer, a Shaw spokesman.
According to Spicer, Wednesday's recount resulted in Shaw picking up 16 votes in Broward County, losing 30 votes in Dade and gaining one vote in Palm Beach.
In Michigan and Minnesota, meanwhile, Rogers and Kennedy were planning to fly to Washington on Sunday to attend an orientation session for newly elected House members next week. But their two defeated Democratic opponents said they were not ready to concede the election.
Adam Wright, a spokesman for Democratic state Sen. Diane Byrum, said "all signs point toward asking for a recount"after news yesterday that an updated count released by the board of electors in one county showed a net gain of 371 votes for Byrum. That would reduce Rogers's lead to 153 votes in the central Michigan district represented by Rep. Deborah Ann Stabenow (D), who won a U.S. Senate seat Tuesday.
Defeated Rep. David Minge (D) planned to file for a recount in southwestern Minnesota, where he lost to Kennedy by 438 votes, spokeswoman Tori Wehman said.
Neither side was charging irregularities, however. "This is Minnesota. It's not Chicago," Kennedy said. "We have a tradition of clean elections here . . . and I'm confident the count will stand." And in Long Beach, Calif., Democrat Gerrie Schipske was waiting to see the results of 16,000 absentee ballots before conceding to four-term Rep. Steve Horn, who was ahead by 1,616 votes with all precincts reporting.
Staff researcher Lynn Davis contributed to this report.
CAPTION: Close Calls (This chart was not available)