The Dems' Siege of the Senate May Fall Short

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U.S. Senator George Allen (R-Va) gestures speaks at a rally in Richmond.

Though it looks as though Democrats up and down the ballot will have their best election night since Bill Clinton won the White House in 1992, party officials waiting for the final results say it appears they will fall just short of taking back the Senate. Democrats have picked up Senate seats in Ohio, Rhode Island and Pennsylvania tonight and held onto Senate seats in Maryland and New Jersey-which means the fight for the Senate is coming down to just a handful of races: Montana, Missouri and Virginia. They are still hopeful that Democratic candidate James Webb will knock off Republican Senator George Allen in Virginia, in a race too close to call. But with challenger Claire McCaskill trailing incumbent Republican Senator Jim Talent in Missouri, it is looking unlikely that the Democrats can pick up the six seats they need to reach 51.

Still, the results were amount to very good news for Democrats. They appear headed toward regaining control of the House, and a majority of the governorships across the country—both for the first time since 1994. And their gain of least three seats in the Senate is significant, considering that the Democrats began this cycle pessimistic that they could even hold on to the 45 seats they have.

Particularly sweet for them was the fact that some of the biggest early winners were in Ohio, the state that handed George Bush the electoral votes he needed to win a second term in 2004. Democratic Congressman Ted Strickland was elected Ohio Governor over Republican Ken Blackwell, the secretary of state, in a top-of-the-ballot race that both sides expected to drive a Democratic sweep of that bellwether state. And Democratic Congressman Sherrod Brown defeated incumbent Republican Senator Michael DeWine.

Indeed, Democrats were becoming cautiously optimistic that they might win back the Senate — a feat that only a few months ago looked next to impossible. Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean used to tell reporters that if he woke up Wednesday morning having defeated Pennsylvania's conservative Republican Senator Rick Santorum, he would consider the night a success. That milestone was passed early in the evening, as the networks declared State Treasurer Bob Casey the winner. But it was only the beginning of a what could be a very big evening for the Democrats. In Virginia, Democrat Jim Webb was running nearly even with incumbent GOP Senator George Allen, whose accident-prone candidacy has tarnished what was once considered one of his party's brightest stars. And New Jersey's Bob Menendez, considered the Democrats' most vulnerable incumbent, skated to victory past Republican Tom Kean Jr.

As for the House, the defeat of GOP Congressman John Hostettler by Democrat Brad Ellsworth, the Vanderburgh County sheriff, was the first confirmation that predictions of a Democratic takeover were coming to pass. The main question now appears to be how big a margin the Democrats will rack up.

Both Casey and Ellsworth had been recruited by the party because their conservative views — both, for instance, are anti-abortion — are far more in sync with voters in their area than they are with the views of the party nationally. "Our backs are against the wall, and the days are over when a Democratic candidate has to check off 28 boxes [on the issues] to get our support," Demcratic Senate campaign chairman Charles Schumer of New York told TIME.

But the exit polls suggest that Democratic candidates came into the election with the wind, not a wall, at their back. And it was not only increasing opposition to the Iraq war, which voters had all along told pollsters was their biggest concern and which ranked as an important issue to two-thirds of voters. An even greater factor may have been the backwash from a series of GOP scandals, with three-fourths of voters citing corruption as an important factor in deciding their votes. Democrats also appeared to be winning back the constituencies that had so contributed to Republican victories over the past few cycles: suburban women, independents and moderates. Even on the issue of terrorism — which had been the Republicans trump card — half of those who said it was important to them voted Democrat.