Strange Things Are Going On in the Senate, Too

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If George W. Bush does win the White House, his vice president could be spending an awful lot of time on Capitol Hill. That's because there's the distinct prospect of a 50-50 GOP-Democratic split in the U.S. Senate, a situation that may require the vice-presidential tie-breaker vote on a regular basis. (The even split depends on Democrat Maria Cantwell's apparent victory in Washington State, where several thousand mail-in ballots still remain to be counted.) But a Democratic presidential victory, ironically, could cost them the tie they won Tuesday, since it would be up to Connecticut's Republican governor to choose a Senate replacement for Vice President Lieberman.

Whatever the outcome, Tuesday's results will push legislators hard to deliver on campaign promises of bipartisanship. "You have minimal margins in the Senate and the House, and Bush won by a razor-thin margin," says Republican strategist David Winston. The Republicans' "cognizance and awareness and handling of that can grow that margin or take it away. It will take some very careful leadership. Because of this election, the next election will be very difficult and very competitive as well." And, in the case of the House, you'll have the added wild card of redistricting.

GOP image-softening in the post-Gingrich era helped the party fend off the Democrats' bid to regain the Senate, says Winston. Republicans focused on such voter-friendly issues as paying down the debt, spending money on education and prescription drugs. "All these things helped significantly," says Winston.

Still, the Democrats came close to recapturing the chamber, picking up seats in Delaware, Florida, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri and, probably, Washington, but losing seats in Virginia and Nevada, for an anticipated net gain of four.

Money spoke loudly in the Senate campaigns, too, helping a number of Democrats: Cantwell put roughly $6 million of her own dot-com stock-option money into her race against Slade Gorton (she became an executive of RealNetworks after losing her House seat several years ago); department store heir Mark Dayton ponied up about $8 million to beat Rod Grams, who had a little scandal problem involving his dating an aide who has been accused of dirty-tricks campaigning, as well as a son who was arrested for numerous alleged transgressions. But the 500-pound gorilla of Democratic spenders was Jon Corzine, who used a record $57 million of his earnings as a Goldman Sachs executive to vault himself into the Senate.

The biggest news of the Senate election was probably the remarkable unseating of Missouri conservative John Ashcroft by the late Governor Mel Carnahan. The race was less a referendum on ideology or issues than it was a tribute to the governor who died three weeks ago in a plane crash, and to his widow, Jean, who has agreed to be appointed in his place.

The most destabilizing factor in the Senate's new equilibrium may yet prove to be age. South Carolina's Strom Thurmond will be 98 years old in December, while North Carolina's Jesse Helms is 79, and both men have had health problems. Should either become incapacitated, it would up to the governor of his state to appoint a replacement. And as of Tuesday, that governor would be a Democrat in both South and North Carolina. Both men are up for reelection in 2002, and age could become an issue. It certainly was for another 79-year-old, Delaware Senator William Roth, who was unlucky enough to have TV cameras capture one of his two or three falls late in his ill-fated campaign.