SEATTLE — Democrat Maria Cantwell pulled narrowly ahead of Republican Sen. Slade Gorton in Washington state on Tuesday, keeping alive the prospect of a 50-50 split between the parties in the Senate next year.
The contest had been all-but-decided in Gorton's favor last week, but Cantwell made a strong showing in late-counted ballots from Seattle; she also gained unexpected support in several GOP strongholds elsewhere in Washington.
It marked the first time that the dot-com millionaire has been ahead in the race since election night. But her lead was a mere 1,823 votes. With more than 3,000 ballots still to be counted before today's 5 p.m. reporting deadline, neither side was making any predictions, and a recount is likely.
Republican Senate leaders had been hoping Gorton would survive Cantwell's tough challenge and give the party a 51-49 majority when the new Senate convenes in January. The GOP currently controls the chamber 54 to 46. But Democrats made a net gain of three seats in the Nov. 7 election, not counting the Washington state race.
Even if Cantwell wins and the new Senate is evenly divided, Republicans would retain majority leadership because of the presidential election. If Republican Dick Cheney becomes vice president, he would break tie votes. If Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) becomes vice president, he would be forced to resign from the Senate and his seat would be filled temporarily with an appointment by Connecticut's GOP governor, who has signaled he would name a Republican.
But in a 50-50 Senate, the chamber's Democratic leaders have made clear they would expect a significantly enhanced political role, mentioning shared committee chairmanships as one possible demand. Lacking such concessions, they have threatened to continually stymie the Senate's operation.
Gorton's staff, which had tentatively planned a victory news conference for Tuesday afternoon, remained locked inside the senator's campaign office, scrutinizing the returns. GOP officials and Gorton campaign workers did not return phone calls after the vote turnaround.
But Ellis Conklin, Cantwell's spokesman, said: "We're very encouraged. But it's still too early to say. It's going to come right down to the wire." Ballots expected to be counted today from the Spokane area, where Gorton has done well, could reverse the lead again.
"To be perfectly honest, yesterday morning I was preparing myself for the worst," said state Democratic Party chairman Paul Berendt. "But yesterday and today, we've outperformed our expectations by a large margin in three important counties, and we have not fallen below our expectations anyplace. So hope springs eternal."
"The planned victory celebration at Gorton headquarters was wildly premature," added Jim Jordan, political director for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in Washington, D.C. "It's so close at this point that the last handful of votes will determine the winner." Indeed, with an automatic recount likely, Berendt was predicting an exhaustive review of the ballots, focusing on individual anomalies that could affect the total count--not unlike the scene in Florida.
In many respects, Washington's down-to-the-wire race has mirrored the close count and the deep political divisions in the presidential one.
"In the state of Washington, we're oftentimes the snap at the end of the whip," Berendt said. "In '92, when there was a strong Democratic trend throughout the nation, we had an extremely strong Democratic trend. In '94, when there was a Republican trend in the rest of the country, we lost six congressional seats. And this year, when we've seen a near-deadlock for the presidency, what do we have? We have a U.S. Senate race that's a virtual tie, and a 49-49 split in our Legislature here. So we tend to accentuate whatever is going on in the rest of the nation."
The Senate race has turned on many of the same issues that drove a wedge into the national electorate: environmental protection weighted against appropriate use of resources, protection of the Social Security system and the best way to keep a thriving economy on track.
Automatic recounts are triggered under Washington law for any race that is within 0.5%, as the Senate race likely will be.
Times staff writer Nick Anderson in Washington, D.C., contributed to this story.