Republicans tightened their grip on the Senate early yesterday, capturing a string of Democratic seats across the South. Democratic leader Tom Daschle struggled for political survival in South Dakota.
Illinois State Senator 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 Republicans did most of the celebrating by far, capturing Democratic open seats in Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Louisiana -- where David Vitter became the first Republican since Reconstruction to win a term in the Senate.
"We ran as a team," said Senator George Allen of Virginia, chairman of the Republican senatorial committee. He referred to Republicans who ran for open seats across the South and West, campaigning as allies of US President George W. 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 the South began in Georgia -- and spread in several directions at once.
Johnny Isakson claimed Georgia for the Republicans, and Jim DeMint took South Carolina. 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 Housing and Urban Development Secretary Mel Martinez held a narrow lead over Betty Castor, a former state education commissioner, with votes counted in more than 90 percent of the precincts.
Republicans also held fast in Oklahoma, where long-term Republican Senator Don Nickles retired. Former Representative 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 Representative 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 US$26 million -- an estimated US$50 for each registered voter.
After a particularly caustic campaign, Bunning, 73, a former major league baseball pitcher, fell behind Democrat Dan Mongiardo, a surgeon, 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 million cast.