- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 5, 2008

UPDATED:

Days after his felony conviction, Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens held on a slim lead Wednesday in a too-close-to-call race that has helped keep Democrats from reaching a 60-seat Senate majority that would give them a filibuster-proof majority.

One of the few Republican bright spots came as Minnesota Sen. Norm Coleman appeared to have edged out Democrat Al Franken. The race is still close enough that the tight margin triggers an automatic recount, and Mr. Franken has not conceded.

Convicted Oct. 7 for making false statements on his financial disclosure forms, Mr. Stevens held to a narrow lead over Democratic opponent, Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich.

Still, the defeated well-known Republicans as Sens. Elizabeth Dole of North Carolina, Sen. John E. Sununu of New Hampshire and Rep. Christopher Shays of Connecticut immediately prompted turmoil in congressional Republicans’ leadership ranks.

Democrats also captured one of the prized House seats in the country, where Fairfax Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerald E. Connolly beat Republican Keith S. Fimian to replace the retiring Republican Rep. Thomas M. Davis III.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, called the first back-to-back Democratic congressional triumphs in 75 years “a wave upon a wave.”

In the first glimmer of an insurrection within Republican ranks, Sen. Jim DeMint called for fellow Republicans to “clean up, reform and rebuild the Republican Party before we can ask Americans to trust us again.”

“This must begin with either a change of command at the highest levels, or our current leaders must embrace a bold new direction,” the South Carolina Republican said. “Americans have again rejected the Democrat-light strategy of higher spending and bigger government, and it’s time for Republicans to chart a new, more principled course.”

Rep. Adam Putnam of Florida responded to the election losses with a letter to colleagues announcing his resignation as chairman of the Republican Conference.

“I have enjoyed every minute as conference chairman, but I believe it is time to step off the leadership ladder and return my focus to crafting public-policy solutions for America’s generational challenges — the very reason I ran for Congress in the first place,” he said in the letter, a copy of which was supplied to reporters.

“I want to fight the battles worth fighting and lock arms to strengthen our nation whenever possible,” he said. “In the coming Congress, I look forward to focusing on the policy solutions critical to the state of Florida and the important work we face on the Financial Services Committee to hold Wall Street accountable and put our economy back on the right track.”

Mrs. Pelosi said the new direction voters demanded would not result in a House skewed to the left.

“A very important part of that change will be the bipartisanship, the civility in which we engage in our dialogue and the fiscal responsibility that we bring to our legislation,” she said.

Several races in the Senate and more in the House were still undecided early Wednesday.

Mrs. Dole, former head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee and wife of 1996 Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole, was bested by former state Sen. Kay Hagan in North Carolina. The seat was formerly held by iconic conservative firebrand Jesse Helms.

The other Republican incumbent senator put out by voters, first-term Republican Mr. Sununu, fell to Jeanne Shaheen. The Democratic former governor effectively tied Mr. Sununu to the unpopular Bush administration.

“Today, the people of New Hampshire spoke at the ballot box, and they said loud and clear they want a new direction,” Mrs. Shaheen told a cheering crowd at a victory party.

“I look forward to working with President Obama to change the direction of this country, to get our economy back on track,” she said, “to expand affordable health care, to free us from foreign oil and to end this misguided war in Iraq.”

Mrs. Hagan congratulated supporters on sticking with her through a yearlong race she started as an underdog challenger to a seemingly untouchable incumbent.

“What we were able to accomplish in a little more than a year is a testament to how hungry people are for a change,” she said. “So much has gone off course for the last eight years, and it’s going to take all of us working together to get it turned around again.”

House Democrats were on track to make significant gains, unseating Republican incumbents in Florida, Connecticut and Arizona. The party jumped to early leads over Republicans in more than a dozen other contests.

Rep. Christopher Shays, a 22-year veteran Republican, failed to keep his seat in an affluent southwestern Connecticut district, which was the last Republican-held district in New England. He lost to Democrat Jim Himes, a Greenwich businessman.

In Florida, Republican Rep. Tom Feeney was defeated by former state Rep. Suzanne Kosmas, and Rep. Ric Keller lost to his Democratic challenger, attorney Alan Grayson.

All told, Democrats unseated six Republican incumbents and captured seven open GOP seats, capitalizing on a large number of Republican retirements to take seats long held by Republicans.

Republicans knocked off two Democratic incumbents and only threatened a handful of others.

Senate Republicans’ took early consolation in a win by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who faced a tougher-than-expected run against millionaire businessman Bruce Lunsford, a Democrat.

Mr. McConnell, in a victory speech to supporters in Louisville, acknowledged the brutal challenge his party has faced in this election.

“Winston Churchill once said that the most exhilarating feeling in life is to be shot at — and missed,” he said. “After the last few months, I think what he really meant to say is that there is nothing more exhausting. This election has been both.”

News organizations also had projected hard-fought victories by Republican Sens. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, Susan Collins of Maine and Roger Wicker of Mississippi. Those victories likely kept the Republicans at 41 or more seats.

However, two of the Democrats’ seats are actually held by Democratic-leaning independents — Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and Bernard Sanders of Vermont. The former has campaigned with Republican presidential hopeful John McCain, and many Democrats outside Congress have called on their leaders to expel Mr. Lieberman.

In Virginia, Democrat Mark Warner had 59 percent of the vote, compared with Republican James S. Gilmore III’s 39 percent, with 31 percent of the precincts reporting in the race between two former governors. The open seat was created by the retirement of Republican Sen. John W. Warner. The two Warners are not related.

Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska, the longest-serving Republican in the Senate, was expected to be in a tight race even before his conviction last week in federal court for concealing gifts from an oil-services company. But he has vowed to appeal the verdict and refused to resign from office or withdraw from the race against Democratic challenger and Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich.

Another tight race is in Minnesota, where first-term Republican incumbent Sen. Norm Coleman faces Democrat Al Franken, a comedian and former liberal talk show host and “Saturday Night Live” alumnus.

Polls in the Minnesota race have seesawed the past year between the two. A survey sponsored by Minneapolis’ Star-Tribune newspaper conducted Wednesday through Friday showed Mr. Franken leading by four percentage points, while a Survey USA poll taken Thursday through Saturday had Mr. Coleman up by five points.

In the House, Democrats hope to pick up as many as 30 seats, a number that would boost their majority to 266 of the chamber’s 435 seats. A majority that large would drown out Republican participation in committee hearings and give Democrats wide latitude to pass legislation without full support of the caucus.

Staff writer Jim McElhatton reported from Washington, D.C.

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