Republicans tightened their grip on the Senate early Wednesday, capturing a string of Democratic seats across the South. Democratic leader Tom Daschle struggled for political survival in South Dakota.
Illinois State Sen. Barack Obama, a Democratic political star in the making, easily won a seat formerly in Republican hands in Illinois, and will be the only black among 100 senators when the new Congress convenes in January. "I am fired up," he told cheering supporters in Illinois.
But the GOP did most of the celebrating by far, capturing Democratic open seats in Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Louisiana — where Rep. David Vitter became the first Republican since Reconstruction to win a term in the Senate.
"We ran as a team," said Sen. George Allen of Virginia, chairman of the GOP senatorial committee. He referred to Republicans who ran for open seats across the South and West, campaigning as allies of President Bush in states where Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry had little or no campaign presence.
"It looks like we're going to have a much strengthened Republican majority," Allen predicted.
Exactly how much depended on the outcome of races still unsettled in Florida, Colorado, Alaska and South Dakota.
Shortly after midnight in the East, Republicans were assured of 52 seats, one more than they control in the current Congress.
The Republican march through Dixie began in Georgia — and spread in several directions at once.
Rep. Johnny Isakson claimed Georgia for the Republicans, and Rep. Jim DeMint took South Carolina. Rep. Richard Burr soon followed suit in North Carolina. Vitter made it four for four when he captured a seat in Louisiana — avoiding a runoff by winning more than 50 percent of the vote.
In each case, Democratic retirements induced ambitious lawmakers to give up safe House seats to risk a run for the Senate.
In Florida, former HUD Secretary Mel Martinez held a narrow lead over Betty Castor, a former state legislator, with votes counted in more than 90 percent of the precincts.
Republicans also held fast in Oklahoma, where long-term GOP Sen. Don Nickles retired. Former Rep. Tom Coburn prevailed there, despite early campaign stumbles that sent the party to his rescue with a televised attack on his Democratic challenger.
In many races with no incumbents on the ballot, Democrats ran as conservatives in hopes of separating themselves from Kerry in their conservative states.
Interviews with voters leaving their polling places underscored the flaw in the strategy.
In North Carolina, Burr gained the votes of nearly nine in 10 of Bush's supporters. Vitter's level of support was nearly as high in Louisiana, as was DeMint's in South Carolina.
Daschle and former Rep. John Thune were in an impossibly close race with votes counted in one-third of their sparsely populated state — separated by fewer than 1,000 votes. Theirs was a campaign on which the two men spent $26 million — an estimated $50 for easch registered voter.
After a particularly caustic campaign, Bunning, 73, fell behind Democrat Dan Mongiardo early in the evening in Kentucky before moving ahead. With votes counted in all but three of the state's 3,482 precincts, he led 50.5 to 49.5 — a margin of fewer than 20,000 votes out of 1.7 milliion cast.
Obama, 43, had no difficulty dispatching Alan Keyes, a black conservative whose outspoken views against abortion and homosexuality earned the disdain from some members of his own party.
Even so, the Democratic state legislator's victory in a race to replace Republican Sen. Peter Fitzgerald capped a remarkable rise. He first gained national prominence this summer when his party's presidential candidate, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, tapped him to deliver the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention.
Isakson, who replaced former House Speaker Newt Gingrich in Congress in 1999, coasted to victory in Georgia. He triumphed over Rep. Denise Majette in a campaign to replace Sen. Zell Miller — a Democrat who crossed party lines to deliver a memorably anti-Kerry speech at the Republican National Convention.
Burr triumphed over Erskine Bowles in North Carolina, who was making his second try for the Senate in two years after a turn as President Clinton's chief of staff. Burr made much of his rival's resume — in a state that Bush carried handily even though democratic running mate John Edwards has held the seat for six years.
In next-door South Carolina, DeMint held off a challenge from Inex Tenenbaum, the state education superintendent. She stumbled early, then found her campaign legs with an attack on DeMint's support for a national sales tax. He battled back, though, and won handily in a state that Bush was carrying, as well.
Republicans who won new terms included Sens. Richard Shelby of Alabama, Kit Bond of Missouri, Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, George Voinovich of Ohio, Sam Brownback of Kansas, Robert Bennett of Utah, Charles Grassley of Iowa, Mike Crapo of Idaho, John McCain of Arizona and Specter.
Among Democratic incumbents, Sens. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, Christopher Dodd of Connecticut, Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, Evan Bayh of Indiana, Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, Russell Feingold of Wisconsin, Charles Schumer of New York, Harry Reid of Nevada, Patty Murray of Washington, Barbara Boxer of California, Ron Wyden of Oregon and Daniel Inouye of Hawaii won new terms.
In all, there were 34 seats on the ballot, 19 held by Democrats and 15 by Republicans.
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.