Republicans consolidated their grip on Congress today, emerging with expanded majorities in the Senate and House of Representatives after elections Tuesday in which GOP candidates knocked off the top Senate Democrat and won close Senate races in Florida and Alaska.
In one of the hottest contests, Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle, a South Dakota Democrat, lost his seat to Republican John Thune, a former House member, after a hard-fought campaign in which the two candidates spent at least $26 million. It was the first election defeat for a Senate leader of either party in more than 50 years, and it helped increase the GOP majority in the Senate, where Republicans added a total of four seats.
In Florida, Republican Mel R. Martinez, a Cuban immigrant and former secretary of housing and urban development in President Bush's Cabinet, defeated Democrat Betty Castor in a race for the seat vacated by retiring Democratic Sen. Bob Graham. The narrow victory -- by 49 percent to 48 percent -- made Martinez the first Cuban American to win a seat in the U.S. Senate.
The wins helped propel the Republicans to an increased Senate majority, with 55 of the 100 seats assured. In Alaska, the last Senate race to be decided, Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski held off former Democratic governor Tony Knowles, winning by 50 percent to 45 percent. The GOP currently holds 51 seats in the outgoing Senate.
In all, nine Senate seats -- out of 34 contested -- changed hands, either because the incumbent was defeated or did not seek reelection.
Republican candidates picked up Senate seats in Florida, South Dakota, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Louisiana, while Democrats took away GOP seats in Illinois and Colorado.
In Illinois, Barack Obama, one of the Democrats' rising stars, handily won with 70 percent of the vote. The victory makes him the only African American member of the new Senate that convenes in early January and only the fifth black to hold a Senate seat in U.S. history.
Interviewed on ABC's "Good Morning America," Obama said that during the past several years, "Republicans have been successful in framing themselves as the defender of American traditions, religious traditions, family traditions. And I think that they have successfully painted the Democrats all too often as contrary to those values."
In future elections, he said, Democrats should "make sure that we don't cede the field in those conversations, because people generally understand that government can't solve all their problems."
In an analysis of the Senate results, the National Taxpayers Union, a conservative group that lobbies against tax increases, said that "supporters of limited government and lower taxes got very good news" in Tuesday's election. It said that in five of the six contests in which both the new and outgoing senator had a rating from the union, the new senator had a higher mark, and in the sixth, both scored an "A." In the other three races, the new senators did not have ratings.
"Come January 2005, taxpayers will have new allies in the Senate on critical votes on appropriations bills, budget process reform, pending energy and transportation bills bloated with pork, Social Security reform and tax relief," the taxpayers union said in a statement.
In the House, where all 435 seats were up for election, Republicans had won 229 seats by this morning and were leading in four other races, potentially giving them 233 seats -- an increase of six over their current total in the outgoing chamber. Nationwide, the vast majority of the House races were won by incumbents.
The final makeup of the House is not yet known, with races in several states still to be decided. Two contests in Louisiana were headed toward runoffs, and winners had not yet been declared in elections for other House seats in New York, Indiana and Washington state.
The pickup of House seats for the GOP represented a victory for House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), who had engineered a controversial redistricting plan in Texas aimed at defeating five Democratic legislators in the state.