- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 5, 2002

The Senate's current composition of 50 Democrats, 49 Republicans and one independent is as tight as it can get. With so many of the Senate races today within the margin of error of the latest polls, we do not pretend to know which party will be controlling the Senate, or for how long.

One relatively safe bet, however, would be to wager on behalf of the political party that might somehow manage to win an overwhelming majority of the "toss-up" and other competitive races if, in fact, either party proves capable of such a feat. Suddenly, what is now such a closely divided Senate could quickly evolve into a body where one party enjoys a rather comfortable majority. In fact, recent history offers two occasions when one party succeeded in capturing an overwhelming majority of close Senate races, surprisingly catapulting it into unpredictable majority status.

Republicans fondly recall election night 1980. Ronald Reagan's coattails were so pervasive and powerful that Republicans knocked off nine incumbent Democratic senators and captured another three Senate seats in which Democratic incumbents had been defeated in primaries. When the night was over, Republicans controlled 53 Senate seats, 12 more than the 41 seats they had the previous morning.

Nov. 4, 1980, was probably the biggest nightmare for Democratic liberals in American history. Republicans achieved their remarkable triumph by capturing10 of the 13 Senate races in which the victor achieved 52 percent or less of the vote.

Among the multi-term Democratic casualties that fateful night were: six-term incumbent Warren Magnuson of Washington (defeated by Slade Gorton); four-term incumbents Frank Church of Idaho (defeated by Steve Symms) and Herman Talmadge of Georgia (defeated by Mack Mattingly); and three-term incumbents Birch Bayh of Indiana (defeated by Dan Quayle), Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin (defeated by Robert Kasten) and George McGovern of South Dakota (defeated by James Abdnor). Meanwhile, Charles Grassley sent John Culver packing in Iowa, John East ousted Robert Morgan in North Carolina, and Warren Rudman dumped John Durkin in New Hampshire. Republican candidates Paula Hawkins, Jeremiah Denton and Frank Murkowski won Senate seats in Florida, Alabama and Alaska, respectively, where Democratic incumbents were beaten in primaries.

Democrats turned the tables six years later. They achieved a net gain of eight seats by capturing nine of the 11 seats in which the victor won 52 percent or less of the vote. Democrats recaptured six seats they had lost in 1980: Richard Shelby, who later became a Republican, won in Alabama; Wyche Fowler won in Georgia; Terry Sanford won in North Carolina; Bob Graham won in Florida; Tom Daschle won in South Dakota; and Brock Adams won in Washington. In North Dakota, Kent Conrad defeated incumbent Republican Mark Andrews. In addition, Democratic candidates Barbara Mikulski and Harry Reid captured open seats vacated by Republicans in Maryland and Nevada, respectively. The single Democratic-controlled seat captured by the GOP was the open seat in Missouri won by Christopher Bond.

Republicans calculated that a switch of less than 30,000 votes in five states would have kept them in the majority in 1986. In 1980, a switch of less than 25,000 votes in four states would have left the Democrats in charge. The only sure bet today is that at least one party and perhaps both, each lamenting what could have been will be making comparable calculations.

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