Democrats failed last night to make this year's election into a clear repudiation of the bitterly disputed presidential election of 2000.
Indeed, as returns streamed in steadily after a relatively smooth day of voting, Republicans appeared poised to claim a narrow victory from an inconclusive election -- though they will have a hard time translating bragging rights into the power to get things done. The story of Election 2002, ultimately, seemed to be the continuing inability of either party to form a strong governing majority in a country almost perfectly divided between the two.
The Democratic effort fell short on the symbolic level -- most clearly in Florida, where party leaders offered a lot of bold talk in recent weeks about making Gov. Jeb Bush (R) pay for his role in the controversial recount two years ago. Despite infusions of cash, and campaign appearances by former president Bill Clinton and former vice president Al Gore, Tampa lawyer Bill McBride (D) got nowhere against Bush. Instead, Bush was outperforming even his comfortable 1998 victory, having run the most expensive gubernatorial campaign in Florida history.
On the nitty-gritty level, too, the election was shaping up to be a disappointment for the Democrats. For months, they tried to make the sputtering economy into a catalyzing national issue that would lift their candidates across the board to victory in close races. In the states where results were clear at 11 p.m. EST, there was no sign of voters blaming President Bush for the weak economy.
Indeed, Democratic hopes for gaining control of the House were extremely dim, and the party was struggling to maintain its one-vote hold on the Senate.
Along the East Coast, key races that appeared close in recent weeks were, in many cases, falling to the Republicans. Rep. John E. Sununu (R) beat Gov. Jeanne Shaheen (D) in the New Hampshire Senate race. Former Cabinet secretary Elizabeth Dole (R) easily defeated former White House chief of staff Erskine B. Bowles (D) for the seat of retiring Sen. Jesse Helms (R). The Republican tide may have been strongest in Georgia, where Rep. Saxby Chambliss (R) opened a lead over Sen. Max Cleland (D), while Sonny Perdue (R) was running hard toward one of the biggest upsets of the night over Gov. Roy Barnes (D).
The last of those illustrated just how far Democratic hopes have fallen since early summer. There was bold talk in Georgia last June about Georgia being the springboard to recapturing the House, thanks to the strength and skill of Barnes in the redistricting battle. There were even murmurings that Barnes would be an overnight presidential contender.
Election night had a lot in common with the campaign that led up to it. Neither one presented a clear message. Both had their strange, sudden turns. The campaign that returned two retirees to active politics -- former senators Frank R. Lautenberg of New Jersey and Walter F. Mondale of Minnesota -- flowed into a rather antique-feeling election night, after the Voter News Service pulled the plug on its exit polls.
The customary orgy of projection and prediction in Washington turned as sober as a candidate at a meeting of the Women's Christian Temperance Union. Without computer models and recirculated gossip, the political world was left to sit and wonder while actual votes were counted.
And the first surprise of the night may have been how many votes there were to count. Many experts had predicted an very low turnout -- even by the customary low standards of off-year elections. But there was anecdotal evidence of strong turnout in at least some states, driven by a large number of high-profile Senate and governors elections. In South Dakota, where Sen. Tim Johnson (D) was fighting for his seat against Rep. John Thune (R), state officials estimated that turnout could hit 75 percent of eligible voters, an off-year record.
If hopes were dim for turnout, it was because the campaign never seemed to gel around issues. As the Democrats slipped and slid in search of a theme, Republicans tiptoed in search of ways to capitalize on the president's post-Sept. 11, 2001, popularity without seeming to crassly politicize the war.
As the evening shaped up, the president appeared to be coming out ahead -- at least slightly -- in this vaguely defined competition. History would have predicted a bad night for George W. Bush. All but three times in the past century, incumbent presidents have lost seats in their first congressional elections, and the October collapse in the consumer confidence level would normally have sealed the president's fate.
But rather than accept destiny, Bush raised a record $142 million for Republican candidates, and crisscrossed the country in a tireless effort to drive the deciding votes into his party's column. He put himself on the line in a way few presidents have matched in modern politics.
Democrats set out to make Bush pay on Election Day, but as he settled in to watch the returns, he had to feel hopeful that he would wake up with more political capital -- not less. But even if he managed to pull the Senate into the Republican column, it won't be by enough to end of political brawling in Washington. Bush will still be working in a deeply divided climate where even small victories will cost him a lot.