WASHINGTON – Majority Republicans battled Democrats for control of the Senate on Tuesday after a costly, caustic string of campaigns across the South and West. Democratic Leader Tom Daschle (search) struggled to keep his seat in South Dakota.
From New Hampshire to Hawaii, most incumbents of both parties faced little-known and poorly funded rivals.
Daschle, challenged by former Rep. John Thune (search), was an exception. So, too, GOP Sens. Jim Bunning (search), challenged by Dan Mongiardo (search) in Kentucky, and Lisa Murkowski (search), opposed by former Democratic Gov. Tony Knowles (search) in Alaska.
Retirements by Democrats in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida and Louisiana raised Republican hopes of padding their majority.
GOP retirements in Illinois, Oklahoma and Colorado stirred optimism among Democrats that they could regain power. Ticket-splitting was key to their chances — Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry made little or no effort against President Bush in seven of the nine states with the most competitive Senate races.
Republicans hold 51 seats in the current Senate. Democrats have 48, along with the support of independent Sen. Jim Jeffords of Vermont.
Whatever the outcome of the party struggle, the large number of retirements translated into at least eight new members of the Senate.
Even Republicans conceded Democrat Barack Obama of Illinois was headed for victory, in a seat held by a retiring Republican. A state senator, Obama achieved political star quality as keynote speaker at the Democratic National Convention this summer. He would be the only black member of the Senate.
Republicans looked to Georgia to offset the loss of the Illinois seat. There, Rep. Johnny Isakson was the consensus favorite to replace retiring Sen. Zell Miller — a Democrat who crossed party lines to deliver a memorably harsh anti-Kerry keynote speech at the GOP convention.
In all, there were 34 seats on the ballot, 19 held by Republicans and 15 by Democrats.
Multimillion dollar campaigns were commonplace in the most contested races, and the Daschle-Thune race set the pace.
Through mid-October, Daschle had spent about $16 million in his quest for a fourth term in a sparsely settled state. Thune's expenditures reached $10 million.
When it came to personal attacks, the Kentucky race was hard to match. Democrats ran television commercials questioning Bunning's mental fitness for office. His allies, in turn, openly speculated about Mongiardo's sexual orientation.
The Campaign Finance Institute, a private group, said the average Senate candidate raised $4.84 million by mid-October, more than 50 percent higher than the totals six years ago when the same seats were last on the ballot. "This year's receipts also exceeded the average $4.15 million candidates raised in 2002," it added.
From the beginning, retirements framed the campaign, consigning Democrats to underdog status.
Sens. Ernest Hollings in South Carolina, Bob Graham in Florida, John Breaux in Louisiana and John Edwards in North Carolina all decided against seeking new terms, joining Miller in voluntary retirement. Republicans instantly became competitive in each race as relatively junior members of the House decided to give up safe seats to run.
GOP Sen. Don Nickles also retired in Oklahoma and Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell followed suit in Colorado, and Democrats quickly produced strong challengers in those states, too.
The result was a closer-than-expected final stretch of the campaign in which Democrats boasted that win or lose, they had defied the political odds by giving themselves a legitimate chance to seize control.
While the candidates had more money, the political parties had less than in past years, the result of a new law that barred them from accepting unlimited donations from individuals, corporations and unions.
Even so, they poured millions into the races deemed competitive.
By the end of September, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee had transferred millions of dollars to state parties for get-out-the-vote operations where Kerry did not plan on creating them — $1.7 million for Alaska, $1.4 million for Oklahoma and $825,000 for South Carolina.
The Republicans moved into Oklahoma and Kentucky when late polls made it look like they needed to, but stayed away from Washington state, where victory seemed out of reach.
So, too, Democrats, who took early looks at races in Pennsylvania and Missouri, but declined to invest in television advertising after concluding that victory was unlikely.
They initially made the same call in Kentucky, but changed their minds with two weeks remaining in the campaign, investing $800,000 in a late attempt for an upset.