News Column

Republicans Take Control of Senate, Hold House in Victory for Bush

November 6, 2002

Mark Sandalow

WASHINGTON - Republicans defied history Tuesday by capturing majorities in both the House and Senate, giving the party control of the White House and the Congress for only the second time in half a century.

The Republican success provided President Bush a stunning victory as well as a golden opportunity to advance his conservative agenda. It was the first time that a Republican president's party had ever gained seats during his first term.

Returns from battleground states showed only a modest surge in Republican votes, keeping strategists and even the president up well into Wednesday morning before victory could be claimed.

But when Missouri Democratic Sen. Jean Carnahan conceded her race shortly 2 a.m. today in the East, it was enough to assure that one of the most unpredictable elections in recent memory would have an unambiguous ending.

"We'll never forget this night, will we?" newly elected North Carolina Sen. Elizabeth Dole, a Republican, shouted to supporters as her husband, former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, stood at her side.

President Bush watched returns as he celebrated his 25th wedding anniversary with First Lady Laura Bush, phoning as many as 30 GOP victors from the White House residence. Into this morning, Bush was on the phone with political advisers from his bedroom as he monitored results that will be widely seen as a reflection of his popularity.

Bush mounted a very aggressive campaign in the final days, traveling to 15 states since Thursday, and raising by one count $142 million for his party since the campaign season began.

Full control of the Congress will allow Republicans to push forward much of Bush's agenda that had stalled in the Democratically controlled Senate, such as expanded tax cuts, an energy bill permitting drilling in the Alaska wilderness and a plan to allow workers to privately invest a portion of their Social Security savings.

Some Democrats said the poor showing reflected the party's timidity in challenging Bush over his $1.3 trillion tax cut and his plans for war in Iraq. Others said they had allowed the Republicans to get away with masking their most extreme positions in order to appear more moderate to voters.

"They stole our issues, they masqueraded," said San Francisco Rep. Nancy Pelosi, who traveled to 90 congressional districts in an attempt to win back the House for Democrats.

Results in two Senate showdown states - Minnesota and South Dakota - remained too close to call early this morning. Even without those states, Republicans had already captured the 50 seats necessary to give them control of the body.

Republicans controlled the Senate immediately after Bush's inauguration in 2001. But within six months, Vermont Senator James Jeffords left the GOP, handing control back to Democrats.

Before that, the last time Republicans controlled the legislative and executive branch was from 1953-1955 during the first two years of the Eisenhower administration.

Tuesday's GOP victory means that Senate Majority Leader Tom Dashle, D-South Dakota, will likely be replaced by Sen. Trent Lott, R-Mississippi.

Republicans did better than expected in places where Bush invested time. In Georgia, where Bush visited Monday, Republican challenger Rep. Saxby Chambliss unseated Democratic Sen. Max Cleland, who had been criticized for opposing Bush's Department of Homeland Security. In South Dakota, where Bush had visited five times this year and twice in the past week, GOP Rep. John Thune was narrowly ahead of Dem. Sen. Tim Johnson.

GOP candidates also won Senate seats in other toss-up states including Colorado, Missouri, North Carolina, New Hampshire and Texas. The lone Democratic pickup in the Senate came in Arkansas, where Democratic Attorney General Mark Pryor unseated Republican Sen. Tim Hutchinson.

In Louisiana, Sen. Mary Landrieu failed to win more than 50 percent of the vote in a crowded field, forcing her into a Dec. 7 runoff election against the top Republican vote-getter.

In the House, Republicans were certain to maintain control of the chamber, bucking a trend dating back to the Civil War in which the president's party had lost House seats in every midterm election except three.

It appeared that the Republicans might add at least three seats to their House majority.

California had no senators up for re-election, and due to an effort by the Legislature to solidify the districts of incumbents, only one of the state's 53 House seats was regarded as competitive. In that race, Democratic Assemblyman Dennis Cardoza defeated Republican state Sen. Dick Monteith.

Democrats believed they would win the six seats necessary to take back the House ever since the contested election of 2000, when Bush won despite receiving fewer popular votes than Al Gore. The softening economy had led them to project big gains, until the events of Sept. 11 changed the political dynamic.

As recently as September, Democrats confidently predicted sizable gains in both the House and the Senate, but the focus on terrorism and the debate over war in Iraq overshadowed domestic themes that Democrats thought would win them votes.

"It's not so much that people were voting on terrorism itself, it just made it difficult for Democrats to get out their message on the economy," said Jack Pitney, a professor at McKenna Claremont College outside Los Angeles and an author on congressional politics.

Democrats also believed they had history on their side. Only twice in the past 126 years had the party in control of the White House gained seats on election day. Democrats did it in 1998 under Bill Clinton and in 1934 under Franklin Roosevelt.

In addition, Republicans, who took over the House in 1994, have not held power this long in the body since the 1920s.

But Democrats had a bit of history working against them. It has been 66 years since any party has won seats in four consecutive House elections. Since losing control of the House in 1994, Democrats had nibbled away at the GOP majority in each of the past three elections.

Source: San Francisco Chronicle

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