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GOP nears House win; Democrats fight for U.S. Senate

Wednesday, November 6, 2002

Republicans marched toward continued control of the House on Tuesday, while Democrats struggled to defend their endangered Senate majority in midterm elections.

Republicans seized a Democratic Senate seat in Georgia as Rep. Saxby Chambliss defeated Sen. Max Cleland. And the GOP prevailed in a pair of high-profile races for open seats, Elizabeth Dole winning in North Carolina and John Sununu in New Hampshire.

Democratic chairman Terry McAuliffe, no fan of the president, said the overall trend was due in large measure to Bush's standing. "I think I pin a lot of it on that this is a president who has had very high approval ratings. He's had the longest sustained approval ratings of any president in modern history," McAuliffe said.

Democrats needed to gain seven seats to win control of the House, and the trend was against them.

Democratic Rep. Karen Thurman fell in Florida, while GOP Reps. Nancy Johnson in Connecticut and Charles Pickering in Mississippi dispatched Democratic incumbents in head-to-head contests.

In Indiana, the GOP won a Democratic open seat, and the GOP retained a hotly contested seat in New Hampshire.

At the White House, Bush made a round of congratulatory telephone calls. The president campaigned in 23 states over the final five weeks of the campaign, hoping to elect congressional candidates who could advance his legislative agenda over the next two years and gubernatorial hopefuls who could aid his re-election in 2004.

Against historical trend

Bush and the Republicans battled history as well as Democrats in the congressional races.

The president's party had lost House seats in every midterm election except three in the past century, an average of 30 seats. The average midterm loss of Senate seats was four.

But the GOP had advantages, as well. These included a political landscape transformed by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and a president whose approval ratings remained at enviable levels despite a sputtering economy.

Republicans also enjoyed financial superiority. A Federal Election Commission analysis said the Republican National Committee and its congressional campaign arms had outraised their Democratic counterparts by $184 million through mid-October.

Two years after the presidential election was marred by massive voting difficulties in Florida, there were relatively few problems reported at polling places around the country.

In Arkansas, with a competitive race for the Senate and governor, Democrats won a court order for extended voting hours, arguing that many precincts were running out of ballots. The state Supreme Court overturned the order, leaving some votes in doubt.

In the last campaign of a free-spending era, all 435 House seats were on the ballot, as well as 34 Senate seats and three dozen statehouse races.

Senate results

Besides Dole, who succeeds a retiring Sen. Jesse Helms in North Carolina, Republican Lindsey Graham won the South Carolina seat of retiring Sen. Strom Thurmond. Lamar Alexander kept a Tennessee seat in Republican hands.

Senators winning re-election included Democrats John Kerry in Massachusetts, Richard Durbin in Illinois, Jay Rockefeller in West Virginia, Joseph Biden in Delaware, Jack Reed in Rhode Island, Carl Levin in Michigan and Max Baucus in Montana.

Sen. Frank Lautenberg was elected to the Senate from New Jersey, two years after retiring, and less than a month after he replaced Sen. Robert Torricelli on the ballot.

Republican winners of new terms included Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, Thad Cochran of Mississippi, John Warner of Virginia, Pat Roberts of Kansas, Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, Jeff Sessions of Alabama, Mike Enzi of Wyoming, James Inhofe of Oklahoma, Susan Collins in Maine, Pete Domenici in New Mexico, Larry Craig in Idaho and Gordon Smith in Oregon.

Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson battled Rep. John Thune in South Dakota, and Democratic Sen. Jean Carnahan ran against former Rep. Jim Talent in a bid for the four years remaining on her late husband's term in Missouri. Embattled GOP incumbents included Sen. Tim Hutchinson, up against Mark Pryor in Arkansas; and Wayne Allard, in a Colorado rematch with Tom Strickland.

In Minnesota, former Vice President Walter F. Mondale sought a return to the Senate in a race against former St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman. Mondale took his place on the ballot less than a week before the election, following the death of Democratic Sen. Paul Wellstone.

And in New Jersey, former Sen. Frank Lautenberg replaced Sen. Bob Torricelli on the ballot in October.

The battle for House control came down to roughly 40 competitive districts, races scattered across the country where the parties spent millions in campaign advertising -- much of it negative -- in search of an edge.

Several were new seats, the result of redistricting mandated by the Constitution to adjust House districts for population shifts. Others were seats left open by incumbents who retired or sought other office.

Only a small number of congressional incumbents struggled for new terms, especially in the House.

There, lawmakers in both parties used redistricting to make sure the new district lines posed no risk to their political futures.

As a result, there were 74 House members -- and two candidates seeking first terms -- without major party opposition. Hundreds more had only token rivals.

The campaign was anything but predictable.

A month before the election, Democrats pulled a ballot switch in the New Jersey Senate race, Sen. Bob Torricelli abandoning a doomed re-election campaign. Lautenberg took his place after an unsuccessful Republican effort to block him in court.

A few weeks later, Wellstone died in a plane crash in northern Minnesota. Democrats quickly coalesced around Mondale.

Democrats went into the campaign counting on historical trends to help them end eight years of Republican rule in the House.

But the terrorist attacks of 14 months ago sent Bush's approval ratings to stratospheric levels. The threat of more attacks, coupled with Bush's threat to use military force against Saddam Hussein in Iraq, complicated Democratic efforts to turn the election into a referendum on the economy.


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