WASHINGTON–DC (Reuters)–Republicans consolidated their hold on the US government on Wednesday after a historic sweep of both chambers of Congress gave President George W. Bush new power to enact his agenda.
Republicans added to their newly won control of the Senate and although the exact level of their victory was not yet totally clear–it was extensive.
Bush was given much of the credit by friend and foe alike for leading his Republicans in winning control of both houses. His supporters immediately began promoting his programs such as tax breaks–homeland security and appointing conservative judges.
The broad midterm election victory cast a long shadow on the 2004 presidential campaign–further enhancing Bush’s already high popularity and muddling the prospects of the Democratic field.
Republicans increased their control of Congress by least three seats with a handful of races still undecided–only the third time in a century the party in the White House gained seats in the midterm elections.
Republicans were also assured of at least a two-seat margin of power in the Senate when former Democratic Vice President Walter Mondale conceded defeat in the Minnesota race he entered only at the last minute when incumbent Paul Wellstone died.
The margin could increase. Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu did not reach 50 percent of the vote in Louisiana and will face a Dec. 7 runoff.
In South Dakota–Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson declared himself the victor but with barely a 500-vote lead over Republican Rep. John Thune–a recount was almost certain.
BUSH INCREASES HIS AUTHORITY
But even the slight edge in the Senate gave Bush the chance to increase his authority to wage a military campaign against Iraq and push initiatives to make his tax cut permanent–create a new Homeland Security Department and get his federal judicial nominees confirmed.
Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle–a South Dakota Democrat who will move to the minority–agreed the election was a referendum on Bush–but added it was also a vote on the war on terror–Iraq and other national security concerns.
"I think it means that the president has an opportunity here to enact and proceed with the plan (on Iraq) as he has articulated it," Daschle said on NBC. "I think the American people appear now to give him the benefit of the doubt."
Bush called many of the winning Republicans to congratulate them but made no public appearances himself. His spokesman Ari Fleischer quoted him as telling the White House staff on Wednesday–“The credit goes to the candidates and those who focused on changing the tone.”
Bush spent the last five days of the campaign traveling across the land in support of Republican candidates in 15 states. Even Democrats had to agree his visits played a major role in the Republicans’ eventual victory.
SOME SUCCESSES FOR DEMOCRATS
Democrats did have some successes–especially in the state governor’s races–where the power–prestige and fund-raising ability often helps candidates running for president.
Democrats might end up with half the governorships–including ones in the large industrial states of Illinois–Michigan and Pennsylvania. They held onto the governor’s job in California–the nation’s largest state–even though polls showed Gov. Gray Davis was highly unpopular.
But even in the governor’s races–Bush’s presence was notable. His brother Jeb Bush was re-elected easily as governor in Florida and Republicans also picked several seats–including two southern seats in Georgia and South Carolina.
Republicans also broke Democratic control of state houses in Maryland and Hawaii–where Democrats had ruled for 36 and 40 years respectively. In Maryland–Democratic Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend–daughter of slain Sen. Robert Kennedy–was upset by Republican Rep. Bob Erlich.
The across-the-country success of the Republicans could only enhance Bush’s White House re-election chances in 2004. His sustained popularity after the Sept. 11–2001 attacks on America was already close to unprecedented.
Bush became only the third president in a century to gain House seats in a midterm election after Democrats Franklin Roosevelt in 1934 and Bill Clinton in 1998. Bush was the first president to gain Senate seats at midterm since Republican Ronald Reagan in 1982.
For Democrats–the results further clouded an already uncertain 2004 president picture. Both Daschle and House Leader Richard Gephardt had been considered major contenders but neither was enhanced by Tuesday’s results and could face challenges over their congressional leadership.
Under their leadership–Democrats failed to retain their one-seat edge in the Senate or make any inroads into the Republicans six-seat lead in the House.
Their first problems may arise next week when Congress returns for a post-election lame duck session. While there was talk about tackling issues like homeland security and presidential appointmen’s–many observers thought the session would deal mostly with funding the government.
Even the makeup of the lame duck session was in doubt. Republicans were sure to push for an early swearing-in of former Rep. James Talent who defeated Democratic Sen. Jean Carnahan to fill out the rest of the term she was appointed to after he husband died in 2000.
And the role of independent Dean Barkley–who was appointed by Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura to replace Wellstone–kept control up in the air too. He said he would take his time to decide which party–if either–he would vote with.
A number of the new faces and names that will be coming to Congress are actually old familiar faces.
The new Republican senators include Elizabeth Dole–a two-time Cabinet member and wife of former Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole–in North Carolina; Lamar Alexander–another former Cabinet member and two-time presidential candidate–in Tennessee–and John Sununu–a congressman who is the son of a former White House chief of staff–in New Hampshire.
Democrats were sending back former three-term Sen. Frank Lautenberg–78–who retired two years ago but jumped back into the race to replace scandal-scarred Sen. Robert Torricelli on the ballot.