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Republicans hang on to Senate with strong challenges

Nov. 3, 2004

By DAVID ESPO, ap special correspondent

WASHINGTON -- Republicans renewed their grip on the Senate Tuesday night and reached out for more, capturing a string of Democratic seats across the South. As of 11:45 p.m. Democratic leader Tom Daschle was facing a strong challenge in South Dakota.

Democratic State Sen. Barack Obama 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.

Republicans did most of the celebrating in the Senate as well as the House, where they marched steadily toward renewed control.

Rep. Johnny Isakson claimed Georgia for the Republicans, and Rep. Jim DeMint took South Carolina. Rep. Richard Burr soon followed suit in North Carolina. In each case, Democratic retirements induced ambitious lawmakers to give up safe House seats to risk a run for the Senate. GOP candidates mounted strong challenges in two more southern states where Democrats stepped down.

In Louisiana, Republican Rep. David Vitter led several Democratic rivals comfortably with more than 90 percent of the precincts counted, and flirted with an outright majority that would allow him to avoid a Dec. 4 runoff. Most incumbents of both parties won handily. For some, it was a struggle.

Sen. Jim Bunning of Kentucky scrambled mightily before winning a new term in Kentucky. Arlen Specter won re-election in Pennsylvania with barely 50 percent of the vote in a multi-candidate field. Both are Republicans.

Daschle and former Rep. 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 $26 million -- an estimated $50 for each registered voter. The Democratic state legislator's victory in a race to replace Republican Sen. Peter Fitzgerald capped a remarkable rise. He first gained national prominence this summer when his party's presidential candidate, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, tapped him to deliver the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention.

Isakson, who replaced former House Speaker Newt Gingrich in Congress in 1999, coasted to victory in Georgia. He triumphed over Rep. Denise Majette in a campaign to replace Sen. Zell Miller, a Democrat who crossed party lines to deliver a memorable anti-Kerry speech at the Republican National Convention.

Rep. Richard Burr triumphed over Erskine Bowles in North Carolina, who was making his second try for the Senate in two years after a turn as former President Bill Clinton's chief of staff. Burr made much of his rival's resume in a state that Bush carried handily even though democratic running mate John Edwards has held the seat for six years.

In next-door South Carolina, DeMint held off a challenge from Inex Tenenbaum, the state Education Superintendent. She stumbled early, then found her campaign legs with an attack on DeMint's support for a national sales tax. He battled back, though, and won handily in a state that Bush was carrying, as well.

Republicans who won new terms included Sens. Richard Shelby of Alabama, Kit Bond of Missouri, Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, George Voinovich of Ohio, Sam Brownback of Kansas, Robert Bennett of Utah, Charles Grassley of Iowa, Mike Crapo of Idaho, John McCain of Arizona and Specter.

Among Democratic incumbents, Sens. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, Christopher Dodd of Connecticut, Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, Evan Bayh of Indiana, Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, Russell Feingold of Wisconsin, Charles Schumer of New York, Harry Reid of Nevada, Patty Murray of Washington, Barbara Boxer of California, Ron Wyden of Oregon and Daniel Inouye of Hawaii won new terms. There were 34 seats on the ballot, 19 held by Democrats and 15 by Republicans.