Night Of Drama In Senate Races

The stunning presidential victory of first-term Senator Barack Obama came with some important wins in Congress, as Democrats were able to capitalize on voter discontent about the sagging economy and fatigue over eight years of Republican policies

Democrats took several Senate seats away from the GOP, winning in Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina, New Mexico, Colorado, Oregon and New Hampshire, realizing the central prediction going into election night that the party would significantly increase its existing majority?

“The individual races are much less significant than the larger numbers and patterns,” Thomas Mann, of the Brookings Institution, said ahead of Tuesday's voting.


The Democratic Party was hoping to significantly increase its existing 37-seat advantage in the House and add to a small edge in the Senate.

In terms of the the House, pundits on both sides of the political aisle expected Democrats to add 20-30 seats. In the end, they captured about two dozen. On the Senate side, it was also in the middle of expectations, but short of the 60-level capable of thwarting opponent filibusters. (Some races were so close that an official winner had yet to be declared.)


The Numbers Game in the Senate ...

“Republicans anticipated a bad year and therefore had a large number of retirements, which created open seats that are giving Democrats an excellent chance,” says Mann of Brookings.

That was certainly the case, as Democrats posted gains throughout the night Tuesday.

In three open-contest states, Democrats prevailed.

In Virginia, Mark Warner defeated another former governor, Jim Gilmore, by a healthy margin. Warner, who was mentioned as a vice presidential candidate, will assume the seat of John Warner, one of several prominent Republicans who chose not to seek re-election.

In New Mexico, the seat open because of the retirement of another longtime senator, Republican Pete Domenici, also went to the Democrats. Tom Udall defeated Steve Pearce. Both men had resigned from their House seats to vie for the open Senate seat.

And in Colorado, Mark Udall beat Bob Schaffer in the race to fill the seat of Republic Senator Wayne Allard, who is stepping down in January

GOP incumbents also went down in defeat.


In New Hampshire, former three-term Democratic governor Jeanne Shaheen edged out incumbent John Sununu, riding the Obama wave there.

In North Carolina, Kay Hagen, a state senator there, defeated Elizabeth Dole, thanks to strong support from women voters.

A third, Gordon Smith of Oregon, also considered vulnerable going into Tuesday, appeared to have lost to Democratic rival Jeff Merkley, but the margin was only 1 percent, and thus still inconclusive.

The GOP, however, did win two key races, one of which was in doubt a couple weeks ago.

Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, whose popularity suffered because of voter backlash over the financial bailout, got a boost from McCain's decisive victory in the state, defeating his Democratic challenger.

Meanwhile, Roger Wicker of Mississippi, who was named to replace Trent Lott when he retired, looked set to beat his Democratic challenger.

There were two other GOPs who started election day on the somewhat-endangered species list.

The race between Norm Coleman of Minnesota and challenger Al Franken, the comedian and author, was still too close to call with less than 500 votes dividing them.

On the other hand, Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, who defeated incumbent Max Cleland in 2002 with what many consider appalling attack-and-slur tactics, won re-election.

Going into election night, John Fortier of the American Enterprise Institute saw “seven seats the GOP has deep trouble in” and though Democrats could get to 58 in the Senate.

Political observers didn’t expect any Democratic senator to lose a seat and that was indeed the case. Joe Biden of Delaware, of course, will step down upon re-election, now that he'll be the next vice president.

And for the very same reason, you can expect the one and only major change in committee chairs, because someone will have to replace Biden at the helm of the Foreign Relations Committee.

... And in the House

The shakeup on the House side was less dramatic than some expected. Going in, Fortier of AEI, was among those who thought it possible that for the first time in more than 50 years, Democrats would win 30 or more house seats in consecutive elections. That didn't happen, though.

Still, the results may be powerful enough.


“I do think you'll see some fairly significant changes in the House Republican leadership.”

He says Minority Leader John Boehner (Ohio) is likely to be challenged by Eric Cantor (Va.) and lose his post.

The same goes for Republican Whip Roy Blunt of Missouri, who led the GOP support for the hasty bailout of the financial services industry.

“They’ll be seen as failing, there will be a sense that they need to clean house,” says Brandon Arnold of the Cato Institute.

Democrats, however, may not be without casualties or even awkward situations.

In the critical battleground state of Pennsylvania, 17-term House veteran Jon Murtha, who found himself in a surprisingly tight race after calling some of his constituents “racist”, was projected by NBC News to keep his seat.

And Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Robert Byrd of West Virginia, who’ll be 91-years-old after the election, is resisting quiet calls to resign because of his age. At the same time, his likely successor, Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, says he won’t push him out of the chairmanship.

States in Focus

The economy may have been a big issue on a national level, but it's not a major factor on state ballots this year. "It's a light year," says Kim Reuben, public finance economist at the Urban Institute, who adds, most initiatives have little chance of passing in the current environment. “If people had known what was going on with the bond and stock markets some of these of these things wouldn’t have gotten on the ballot.”

In Massachusetts, voters rejected a measure that would have eliminated the state income tax over two years.

The financial crisis may be giving rise to the idea that the economy is going down the tubes,” says the Cato Institute's Chris Edwards, which might “work against some of these proposals."

(Edwards and Reuben both rightly predicted the tax proposal would be defeated.)

Click here for the complete list of state ballot issues.

About a half-dozen states, had bond issues on their ballots, asking voters—and taxpayers—to finance any number of things.

Voters in California, as is often the case, faced a handful of ballot issues, including three bond-oriented ones.

The big-ticket item was $10-billion in funding for a high-speed rail line between San Francisco and Los Angeles, a project with a $45-billion price tag. Voters supported the proposition by a healthy margin.

Another bond measure, calling for for $5 billion to cover various renewable energy, alternative fuel, energy efficiency and emission-reduction initiatives, was defeated.

“In economic hard times, these ballot issues tend to be defeated,” says Tom Schatz, president of Taxpayers Against Government Waste, which opposed the rail project for both practical reasons and its “pork potential.”

Analysts predicted the high-speed line proposal would be rejected but voters approved the proposition.

Maine and Nebraska also had proposals to sell bonds to pay for things such as highways. Maine's ballot eventually passed, although Nebraska's was rejected.

Energy and Environment

Alternative energy and the environment were two other popular issues on state ballots.

Wind farm in Evia, Greece
Wind farm in Evia, Greece

Louisiana and Colorado were asking citizens to increase the tax on energy production in their states. Both states rejected the ballots.

Both Minnesota and Georgia sought to protect land by dedicating funding through tax programs to preserve wetlands and forests. Ballots from both states were approved.

In Missouri and California, sponsors were asking voters to decide on rules mandating that public utilities derive a certain amount of their electricity from alternative energy sources, which is now the case in many states.

Missouri's measure passed by a considerable margin, while the one in California, which called for a big increase in the existing requirements, failed.

"I think that consumers and many lawmakers are just now realizing the importance of renewable energy,” says Jeff Swenerton, communications director at the Center for Resource Solutions. “There's definitely huge room for growth and the potential for lots of job creation in states like the Dakotas, Wyoming, Kansas, Montana, and other states with huge wind resources."