WASHINGTON – President Bush's (search) conservative coattails, geography and campaigns crafted to take advantage of both helped Republicans to a four-seat gain in Senate elections this year.
In the House, the vote totals suggest it was bipartisan redistricting plans enacted after the 2000 census — not a more recent, bitterly contested GOP power play in Texas — that consigned Democrats to at least two more years in the minority.
"We ran as a team" in the Senate, said Virginia Sen. George Allen, chairman of the GOP senatorial committee. The son of a professional football coach and a man given to sports analogies, he might have added that Republicans had a home field advantage.
Nine states had competitive races: North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Colorado, where incumbents retired, and Kentucky, Alaska and South Dakota, where veteran lawmakers were on the ballot.
The nine states had something else in common. President Bush prevailed in each of them, frequently by large margins and often without any resistance from Democratic Sen. John Kerry (search) Bush's share of the vote averaged 58 percent, well above the 51 percent he gained nationally. Republicans won Senate races in eight, losing only Colorado.
"In the end the best candidate wins, but when you're competing in a lot of places where the president's doing well and then add to it what we were doing elsewhere, which is increase turnout, it also helps," said Matthew Dowd, Bush's chief re-election strategist.
Bush's strategy was to defeat Kerry with an unexpectedly high turnout of conservatives, and he did. Election Day interviews with voters leaving their polling places showed the Democratic challenger outpolled the president among self-described moderates, improving on Al Gore's performance of four years ago.
But the moderates accounted for a smaller percentage of the electorate this time, and conservatives for a larger one — 34 percent of the voting population, compared with 29 percent in 2000. And the percentage of self-described conservative voters equaled or exceeded the national figure in each of the nine states with competitive Senate races.
While Bush created an opportunity for Republican candidates in several races, "you still had to go win it on your own," said John McLaughlin, a pollster who worked on several of the races for the GOP senatorial committee. "You still had to make those coattails work for you."
Party-financed television advertising reinforced what the candidates were already doing on their own, adding emphasis in the final days of campaigns in which Democrats were stressing independence from Kerry and their own party.
In Louisiana, Republicans morphed the image of Rep. Chris John into Kerry, part of a successful effort to hold down the leading Democrat's vote and allow Rep. David Vitter (search) to claim the Senate seat without a Dec. 4 runoff.
In fact, five Democratic retirements in the South tilted the electoral map in favor of the GOP from the first. Democrats recruited aggressively — former Gov. Tony Knowles gave them their only conceivable chance in Alaska — and worked successfully in other states to avoid contested primaries.
"From the candidates to the resources to the organizations on the ground we did everything within our control to be in a position to win," said Sen. Jon Corzine of New Jersey, chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (search). "What we could not control was a map which was tilted decidedly in our opponents direction and an unexpectedly strong showing by President Bush..."
In the House, Bush's home state was a political killing field for Democrats, four of whom lost their seats after being forced into new, GOP-heavy districts designed by Majority Leader Tom DeLay.
Other than Texas, Democrats took away four seats in Republican hands but lost two of their own. That meant an overall loss rather than a gain that might have provided a psychological boost even if it left them short of the 12 needed to win control.
Beyond the few seats that changed hands, there was a startlingly small number of competitive races, the result of bipartisan incumbent-protection redistricting plans enacted in state after state following the 2000 census.
Of 433 races settled on election night, there were only 27 in which the winner was held to less than 55 percent of the vote. In more than 150 cases, the winner had 60 percent or more. In more than 75 others, it was 70 percent or higher.
Democrats, in the minority for more than a decade, and looking ahead to the 2006 elections when Bush will be midway through his second term, read good news into the returns.
"Quite frankly, I think the table is set for us in the next election," said House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of California. "We have lost just about everything that we can lose."