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Wednesday, November 3, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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GOP expands control of Senate; Daschle unseated

The Washington Post

Republicans toppled Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, winning their biggest Senate prize and expanding their majority in a Southern sweep. They added wins in Alaska and Florida on Wednesday.

Republicans were assured 55 Senate seats, strengthening their 51-48 margin, with one Democratic-leaning independent.

Daschle, who was elected to the Senate in 1986 and had served eight years in the House, told supporters he was "grateful for the extraordinary opportunity."

Reminiscing on his political career, he recalled being mistaken for a paperboy years ago. "Well, that doesn't happen anymore," he said. "I'm a lot more recognized. I'm a lot grayer. I'm a grandfather ... a lot wiser."

Democrats hoped for a GOP defection to ease the pain. Rhode Island Sen. Lincoln Chafee said he would consider switching parties if President Bush were re-elected.

"I'm not ruling it out," Chafee told The Providence Journal. Known for moderate views that often run counter to the Bush administration, Chafee said he cast a write-in vote for Bush's father, George H.W. Bush, in Tuesday's election, calling it a "symbolic protest."

In Alaska, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who was considered the most endangered Republican, defeated former Democratic Gov. Tony Knowles, earning a Senate term in her own right. She overcame political turmoil that arose when her father, the governor, appointed her to fill his Senate term.

In Florida, Mel Martinez defeated Democrat Betty Castor in a tight contest to replace retiring Sen. Bob Graham, a Democrat. Martinez will be the nation's first Cuban-American senator, winning 49 percent to Castor's 48 percent.

Republicans were surprised by their Senate showing, winning competitive races in Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Louisiana — where the GOP won its first seat since Reconstruction.

"Nobody expected that," Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., said Wednesday on NBC's "Today." Frist, whose name has been mentioned as a possible presidential candidate in 2008, planned a victory tour in which he would join the newly elected Republican senators from the South.

Daschle, who was labeled an obstructionist by Republicans, fell short by about 4,500 votes, garnering 49 percent to 51 percent for former GOP Rep. John Thune.

"These elections demonstrate that obstruction is unacceptable to the American people," Frist said, adding that Republicans now can more easily pursue an aggressive agenda that includes partial privatization of Social Security, an overhaul of the tax code and tort reform.

The last time a Senate leader was unseated was in 1952, when Barry Goldwater of Arizona turned Senate Majority Leader Ernest McFarland out of office.

An Associated Press exit poll showed that South Dakota voters concerned with moral values and terrorism helped Thune.

Democrats had a nearly insurmountable hurdle to take control of the Senate, since most of the competitive races were in states where Bush was strong.

In Illinois, state Sen. Barack Obama easily won, making him the only black member of the new Senate that convenes in January. He cautioned against a GOP mandate.

"You still need 60 votes in the Senate to make things happen," Obama said Wednesday on NBC's "Today." "The Republicans don't have 60 votes. My hope would be that they recognize that, and the Democrats are willing to serve as a loyal opposition."

The strengthened Republican Senate probably will mean more votes to confirm nominees to the Supreme Court in a second Bush term. One Republican winner, Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, is in line to become chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which holds confirmation hearings on court nominees.

In other notable races:

—Former GOP Rep. Tom Coburn trounced Rep. Brad Carson in Oklahoma.

—Incumbent Republican Jim Bunning in Kentucky won a narrow victory over challenger Daniel Mongiardo.

—In South Carolina, GOP Rep. Jim DeMint handily defeated Democratic challenger Inez Tenenbaum.

—In North Carolina, Republican Richard Burr defeated Erskine Bowles, the one-time chief of staff to former President Clinton.

—In Louisiana, GOP Rep. David Vitter won a majority and avoided a runoff.

—Democrats will have the first Hispanic senator in more than a quarter century. Ken Salazar narrowly won in Colorado over Republican beer executive Pete Coors.

AP correspondent David Espo contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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