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DECISION 2000 | U.S. CONGRESS

GOP Appears to Have Won Power Play

Majority party claims win, but with some races achingly close, Democrats refuse to concede.

November 08, 2000|JANET HOOK and NICK ANDERSON | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — Republicans appeared to maintain control of Congress on Tuesday by the narrowest of margins in a vote that saw a dead man and a first lady elected, two millionaires winning on the strength of their own money and at least three senators thrown out of office.

As the parties concluded their tense and expensive duel for legislative power, House Republicans said they had held off a strong Democratic challenge--a claim the Democrats were not yet ready to concede early today. Each side lost at least one incumbent, and several open seats traded hands. But analysis of a few dozen key races nationwide showed Democrats apparently falling short of their goal of erasing the GOP's seven-seat House margin.

In the Senate, Democrats whittled the Republican majority by at least two seats, but they could not nail down the five seats they needed to retake power.

Still, the final goal remained achingly close as numerous races--especially in California and other Western states--were cliffhangers late into the night. In California, Democrats won an open seat in the Silicon Valley that had been in Republican hands, and they appeared to knock off incumbent GOP Reps. James E. Rogan of Glendale and Brian P. Bilbray of San Diego.

But one thing seemed clear: Whoever controls the House or the Senate likely will do so by the thinnest margin in decades--and with an uncertain mandate from the voters. Those fragile majorities will make it difficult for the new president to steer Congress in any radically new direction.

"It looks like we will be able to hold a majority," Senate GOP leader Trent Lott of Mississippi told CNN. "You may not have a sweeping mandate, but it's going to be different in Washington."

Said House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.): "Clearly, we have to reach across the aisle."

Against the backdrop of those partisan stakes, voters in marquee races around the country were making history in distinctive ways.

New York voters set a precedent by electing a first lady to Congress. Hillary Rodham Clinton triumphed over GOP Rep. Rick Lazio in a senatorial campaign that consumed more money, national attention and presidential energy than any other in the nation.

Hillary Clinton, claiming victory shortly after 11 p.m., told cheering supporters, "I promise you tonight I will reach across party lines to bring progress to all of New York's families. Today we voted as Democrats and Republicans. Tomorrow we begin again as New Yorkers. . . . I will work my heart out for you for the next six years."

In Missouri, voters were making a different kind of history: They took the extraordinary step of casting more votes for a dead Senate candidate--Democratic Gov. Mel Carnahan, who was killed in a plane crash three weeks ago--in a campaign that defeated GOP Sen. John Ashcroft. That clears the way for Missouri's acting Democratic governor to appoint Carnahan's widow, Jean. But the GOP may mount a legal challenge.

In New Jersey, Democratic Senate candidate Jon Corzine won his race by spending unprecedented amounts of his own money. That was just the beginning of a good night for self-financed millionaire candidates. Another rich business executive won the Senate race in Minnesota; a third won in Washington state.

In California, meanwhile, voters reelected Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who was running against Rep. Tom Campbell (R-San Jose), by a much broader margin of victory than she had captured in a bitterly fought campaign against a wealthy challenger six years ago.

Control of the House appeared to hinge on what happens in California, which Republicans acknowledge is treacherous terrain for their incumbents. Democratic hopes of winning the majority rest heavily on knocking off three incumbents--including Rogan, whose fight against Democratic state Sen. Adam Schiff has turned into the most expensive House race in history. But Rep. Stephen Horn (R-Long Beach) appeared to be leading in a tough fight.

As polls opened around the nation Tuesday, the battle to control Congress remained too close to call. But from the outset of the campaign season, there has been one certainty: This would be a blue-chip year for most incumbents. All but a handful of House members and senators coasted to reelection with little or no opposition. In a time of peace and prosperity, and in the last election before the 2000 census causes a shake-up in House districts, the battle royal was fought on a tiny battleground. Gone was the throw-the-bums-out animus that had prevailed in the early- to mid-1990s.

But huge stakes rode on a few dozen contests. Democrats hungered to win back the majority power they had lost in a stunning, humiliating blow in 1994, when Republicans won control of both the House and Senate for the first time in 40 years. Democrats needed to pick up at least seven House seats and five Senate seats to do so.

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