Wednesday, November 06, 2002

GOP Gains Control of Congress

Republicans Keep Reins in the House, Recapture Majority in the Senate
By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 6, 2002; Page A01

Republicans captured control of Congress last night, regaining power in the Senate and expanded their majority in the House as GOP candidates rode the slipstream of President Bush's popularity and turned a competitive midterm campaign into an election that defied the odds of history.

The last piece in the battle for control of Congress fell into place shortly before 2 a.m. today when Sen. Jean Carnahan (D-Mo.) telephoned former representative Jim Talent (R) and conceded defeat. Talent's victory secured GOP control in the Senate, an outcome that had appeared almost out of reach to party leaders only a day earlier and that left Democrats dispirited and looking for scapegoats.

In an era in which presidents are not supposed to have coattails, particularly in their first midterm election, Bush provided the energy and message that produced a surge of Republican votes in crucial battlegrounds. The GOP held all but one of their endangered seats and defeated at least two Democratic incumbents.

In addition to Talent's victory, Rep. Saxby Chambliss (R) beat Sen. Max Cleland (D) in Georgia, a state that proved particularly disappointing to the Democrats. The lone bright spot for the Democrats came in Arkansas, where attorney general Mark Pryor (D) beat Sen. Tim Hutchinson, long seen as the GOP's most vulnerable senator, but Democrats could not win any of the other Republican-held seats that were within their grasp in the final days of the campaign. With several races still undecided, the Republicans will have at least 50 seats in the Senate and Vice President Cheney to cast the tie-breaking vote.

Talent's victory also means that Republicans will be in the majority when Congress returns this month for a lame-duck session. Carnahan was filling the unexpired term of her husband, former governor Mel Carnahan, who was killed in a plane crash but remained on the 2000 ballot. Under Missouri law, Talent can be sworn into office immediately.

The GOP performance in the House was equally impressive. The party that controls the White House almost always loses House seats in the first midterm election of a new president, but House Republicans were on track to add a few seats to the 223-seat majority they hold in the current Congress. No Republican president had seen his party gain House seats in a midterm election.

"President Bush and the Republican Party have made history," White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said.

Democratic National Committee Chairman Terence McAuliffe told the Associated Press that Bush was the critical factor in the Democratic losses. "I pin a lot of it on that this is a president who has had very high approval ratings," he said. "He's had the longest sustained approval ratings of any president in modern history."

In gubernatorial races, Democrats claimed three big prizes by winning in Pennsylvania, Illinois and Michigan. But they were struggling to win an absolute majority among the governorships, which they had set as their goal for the year.

Republicans retained power in Florida, where Gov. Jeb Bush easily defeated Democrat Bill McBride in a race that echoed with the bitter memories of the Florida recount battle two years ago. The GOP also pulled off the biggest surprise of the night by ousting Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes (D), who was seen as coasting toward a second term not long ago.

Republicans turned history on its head last night, thanks to an aggressive White House strategy to put the president into the most competitive House and Senate races in the final weeks of the campaign, superior financial resources in the battleground contests and, apparently to a revamped GOP voter turnout operation.

GOP senatorial victories early in the night put Democrats on the defensive. In North Carolina, Elizabeth Dole (R) held off a late challenge from former Clinton White House chief of staff Erskine Bowles. The GOP fended off another strong Democratic challenge in New Hampshire, where Rep. John Sununu stopped Gov. Jeanne Shaheen (D).

With Cleland's defeat, Democratic hopes of holding their Senate majority hinged on races in Minnesota, Missouri, South Dakota, Colorado, Texas and Louisiana.

In Colorado, however, Sen. Wayne Allard (R) defeated former U.S. attorney Tom Strickland, and in Texas, attorney general John Cornyn (R) beat former Dallas mayor Ron Kirk (D), who was bidding to become the first African American from Texas elected to the Senate since Reconstruction.

Still undecided early this morning were the races in South Dakota and Minnesota, both seats controlled by Democrats. In South Dakota, Sen. Tim Johnson had a tiny lead against Rep. John Thune (R) in what had been seen as the closest race in the country on election eve.

In Minnesota, where counting was slow because of paper ballots, former vice president Walter F. Mondale (D) was running behind former St. Paul mayor Norm Coleman (R) on a night when Republicans ran well in other races in the state. Mondale replaced Sen. Paul D. Wellstone (D) on the ballot after Wellstone was killed in a plane crash.

Democrats have one other seat in jeopardy. Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu (D) led a field that included three Republicans, but she fell short of the necessary 50 percent and was thrown into a Dec. 7 runoff against election commissioner Suzanne Haik Terrell (R).

Veteran senators in both parties easily won reelection. Democratic Sens. Joseph R. Biden (Del.), Richard Durbin (Ill.), Tom Harkin (Iowa), John Kerry (Mass.), Carl Levin (Mich.), Max Baucus (Mont), Jack Reed (R.I.) and John D. Rockefeller IV (W. Va.) were returned to office.

Republicans who were reelected included Sens. Jeff Sessions (Ala.), Ted Stevens (Alaska), Larry Craig (Idaho), Pat Roberts (Kan.), Mitch McConnell (Ky.), Susan Collins (Maine), Thad Cochran (Miss.), Chuck Hagel (Neb.), Pete Domenici (N.M.), James Inhofe (Okla.), Gordon Smith (Ore.), John Warner (Virginia) and Mike Enzi (Wyo.).

In New Jersey, former senator Frank Lautenberg (D) defeated business executive Doug Forrester (R). Lautenberg was put on the ballot after Sen. Robert G. Torricelli (D) quit when polls showed he was likely to lose the race because of ethics problems.

Republicans held on to open seats in Tennessee and South Carolina, as expected. In Tennessee, former governor Lamar Alexander (R) easily defeated Rep. Bob Clement (D), while in South Carolina, Rep. Lindsey Graham (R) defeated former college president Alex Sanders (D).

In House races, Republicans sought to add to their majority, after suffering losses in the last three elections. Rep. Anne M. Northup (Ky.), a key target of Democrats, won, and in Indiana, Republican Chris Chocola defeated representative Jill Long Thompson to capture an open seat held by Democrats.

In Florida, Rep. Karen Thurman (D), a top GOP target, lost. Three Democratic incumbents paired against Republican incumbents also lost. Rep. Nancy Johnson (R-Conn.) defeated Rep. James Maloney (D-Conn.). Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.) beat Rep. Dave Phelps (D-Ill.). Rep. Charles Pickering (R-Miss.) stopped Rep. Ronnie Shows (D-Miss.).

But Democrats knocked off one prominent GOP incumbent in Maryland, where state Sen. Christopher Van Hollen defeated Rep. Constance A. Morella, and in Pennsylvania, Rep. Tim Holden (D) beat Rep. George Gekas.

Democrats had anticipated a good night in the gubernatorial races. Former Philadelphia mayor Ed Rendell (D) defeated attorney general Mike Fisher (R) in Pennsylvania, and Rep. Rod Blagojevich (D) beat attorney general Jim Ryan (R) in Illinois. In Michigan, attorney general Jennifer Granholm defeated Lt. Gov. Dick Posthumus. In Wisconsin, attorney general Jim Doyle (D) defeated Gov. Scott McCallum (R).

But Republicans took several important Democratic-held statehouses. In Maryland, Rep. Robert Ehrlich upset Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend (D). In South Carolina, former representative Mark Sanford upended Gov. Jim Hodges. In New Hampshire, business executive Craig Benson defeated Mark Fernald (D). In another big surprise, state Sen. Brad Henry (D) upset heavily favored former representative Steve Largent (R).

Gubernatorial races proved extraordinarily volatile. Republicans won Northeast seats targeted by Democrats. In Massachusetts, business executive Mitt Romney (R) defeated state treasurer Shannon O'Brien. In Rhode Island, business executive Donald L. Carcieri (R) defeated Myrth York (D), who lost her third straight race for governor. But Democrats picked up Kansas, where insurance commissioner Kathleen Sebelius defeated state treasurer Timothy Shallenburger (R).

Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman (D) survived a scare from Rep. Bob Riley (R), while Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack (D) beat back a challenge from Republican Doug Gross. In Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R) fended off a challenge from state treasurer Jimmie Lou Fisher. Alaska changed hands when Sen. Frank Murkowski (R) defeated Lt. Gov. Fran Ulmer (D).

New York Gov. George Pataki (R), Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R), Connecticut Gov. John Rowland, Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne, Nevada Gov. Kenny Guinn, Nebraska Gov. Mike Johanns, Ohio Gov. Bob Taft and Colorado Gov. Bill Owens all coasted to victory. In California, Gov. Gray Davis (D) defeated business executive Bll Simon (R).

Democrats picked up the governorship in New Mexico, when former Clinton Cabinet official Bill Richardson (D) beat Republican John Sanchez, and in Tennessee, where former Nashville mayor Phil Bredesen beat Rep. Van Hilleary (R).

In Arizona, state attorney general Janet Napolitano (D) and former representative Matt Salmon were in a tight race. The race in Oregon between Ted Kulongowski (D) and Kevin Mannix (R) was also close.

In two states controlled by independent governors, the parties split. State House Majority Leader Tim Pawlenty (R) won in Minnesota and Rep. David Baldacci (D) captured the governorship in Maine.

Going into yesterday's elections, the Senate was evenly split, with 49 Democrats, 49 Republicans and two independents. In the House, Republicans had 223 seats to 208 for the Democrats, with one independent (who votes with the Democrats) and three vacancies. The GOP had 27 of the 50 governorships to 21 for the Democrats, with two states led by independents.

No matter the outcome, one party was destined to make history. The party that holds the White House normally loses House seats in the first midterm election of a new president's first time, with the only exception being the election of 1934, during President Franklin D. Roosevelt's first term, when Democrats gained seats.

Democrats were running up against another historical oddity, which is that only once in his century has a party gained seats in four consecutive elections. After their shellacking in 1994, when they lost 52 seats and control of the House, Democrats picked up seats in the past three elections. A net gain in this election would go against history's trends.

First midterm elections are often a referendum on a new president's performance, but this year Bush was hardly an issue, creating an environment far more favorable than normal for GOP candidates. Bush's approval rating, which stands somewhere between the low and high sixties, makes him the most popular midterm president at least since Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Although the president's ratings have slid significantly since he hit about 90 percent approval after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, they remained high enough to make him an unattractive target to many Democratic candidates. In some states, Democratic challengers embraced the president's tax cut in their own elections.

Unlike some presidents, Bush did not shrink from risking his political capital in the elections. He proved to be the most prodigious fundraiser in the history of politics, raising more than $140 million on behalf of GOP candidates and state parties around the country this year. Even more significant, however, was the commitment he made in the last weeks to campaign in the most competitive races. Bush's last swing alone took him to 15 states in five days. .

Through much of the year, Democrats saw the weak economy as their most powerful weapon, but were constantly frustrated by their inability to turn the election into a clear referendum on that issue.

Some Democrats complained that the decision by Senate Majority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) and House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) to take the issue of Bush's tax cut off the table, and the failure of Democratic leaders to articulate a strong economic message in contrast to Bush's, cost Democratic candidates in their races.

Staff researcher Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.