WASHINGTON — Republicans added four seats Wednesday to their majority in the Senate after capturing a string of Democratic seats across the South and toppling Democratic leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota.
In the most important contest, Daschle conceded to his Republican opponent, John Thune, in a midmorning speech in Sioux Falls, S.D. Daschle, the first Senate minority leader in history to lose a re-election bid, thanked South Dakotans for the “extraordinary opportunity that they have given me these many years.”
In the last race to be decided, Republican Lisa Murkowski of Alaska earned a term in the Senate in her own right, defeating popular former Gov. Tony Knowles and overcoming the commotion that arose when her father, the governor, appointed her to fill his Senate term.
With all precincts reporting, Murkowski had 49 percent to Knowles’ 45 percent, a lead of more than 11,000 votes.
The Republican Party now holds a 55-44 edge in the Senate, with one Democratic-leaning independent. Entering the election, the Republicans held a 51-48 advantage over the Democrats.
Video: Frist's assessment A strengthened Republican Party in the Senate has implications for President Bush, who gave his victory speech Wednesday afternoon, after Sen. John Kerry conceded defeat on Wednesday.
It will be particularly important in terms of judicial nominees, giving Bush a stronger hand in naming any nominees to the Supreme Court. One Republican winner, Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, is in line to become chairman of the Judiciary Committee, which holds confirmation hearings on court nominees.
Most attention early Wednesday was focused on the Daschle-Thune race.
Although the Republican Party had targeted Daschle, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., called his defeat a surprise.
“Nobody expected that,” Frist said on NBC’s “Today” show. “It is huge.”
Daschle, whom Republicans labeled an obstructionist, finished more than 4,000 votes behind Thune, a former member of the House, with 100 percent of the precincts reporting.
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A costly, bruising battle
At least $26 million was spent in the bruising contest. Daschle and Thune had spent more than $50 apiece on each of the state’s 502,000 registered voters as of mid-October. That di8d not include the millions of dollars being spent by outside groups, most of them opposed to Daschle.
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. No minority leader has ever been toppled from office.
Even before the smoke cleared in South Dakota, Republicans were celebrating a strong showing in the South, where they picked up seats in Florida Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Louisiana — the latter the first Republican seat in the state since Reconstruction.
“The nation spoke that we’re on the right course, and we’ll stay on that course and hopefully accelerate it,” Frist said at a Republican victory celebration early Wednesday.
In Alaska, Knowles, a Democrat, called Murkowski to congratulate her but stopped short of formally conceding defeat Wednesday. He said he wanted to let the democratic process run its course to ensure that every vote is counted.
“But it’s improbable that we’ll make up the existing difference,” he said.
Elections officials said thousands of questioned ballots and absentee votes remain to be counted. The state sent out 58,559 absentee ballots, nearly double the number distributed in 2000. Under state law, the post-election deadline for absentee ballots is 10 days for those mailed domestically and 15 days for overseas voters.
The election was Murkowski’s first time before the voters, and she managed to overcome naysayers who remained convinced that she unfairly gained the job because of her family ties. Her most ardent foes placed bumper stickers on their vehicles that read: “Yo, Lisa! Who’s yer daddy?!”
Murkowski, a 47-year-old former state lawmaker, was appointed by Gov. Frank Murkowski to the Senate seat he vacated when he was elected governor in 2002. The appointment was made possible by a change in state law enacted by the Legislature that year.
Nepotism was such an issue this year that more than 50,000 voters signed petitions for an initiative on Tuesday’s ballot to require Senate vacancies be filled by special election. The measure was approved.
GOP adds to advantage
Republicans also triumphed in three other elections that were not decided until midday Wednesday:
- Florida Democrat Betty Castor conceded defeat in a tight Senate contest with Mel Martinez, a Cuban emigré who left President Bush’s Cabinet to run for the seat opened by the retirement of Sen. Bob Graham. Martinez, who headed the Department of Housing and Urban Development in the Bush administration, led by 79,067 votes out of more than 7.1 million counted in his campaign to become the nation’s first Cuban-American senator.
- In Kentucky, incumbent Jim Bunning, a former major-league pitcher, won by just more than 23,000 votes over Democrat Daniel Mongiardo, with 100 percent of the vote counted.
- In Louisiana, Republican Rep. David Vitter captured 51 percent of the vote, surpassing the 50 percent mark that allowed him to avoid a runoff with runner-up Chris John, a Democrat who captured 29 percent of the vote.
In one of the few bright spots for Democrats, Illinois state Sen. Barack Obama, a political star in the making, easily won a seat formerly in Republican hands and will be the only black senator when the new Congress convenes in January.
Obama, 43, had no difficulty dispatching Alan Keyes, a black conservative whose outspoken views against abortion and homosexuality earned the disdain of some members of his own party.
Democrats hope for defection
Democrats also were hoping for a defection to ease the pain. Sen. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, a moderate Republican, said he would consider switching parties if 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.”
The Republican march through the South began in Georgia and spread in several directions at once.
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.
Republicans also held fast in Oklahoma, where long-term Republican Sen. Don Nickles retired. Former Rep. Tom Coburn prevailed there, despite early campaign stumbles that sent the party to his rescue with a televised attack on his Democratic challenger.
Democrat defeats brewing scion in Colorado
But the Republican string ran out in Colorado, where Democrat Ken Salazar narrowly triumphed over Peter Coors in a race to succeed retiring Republican Ben Nighthorse Campbell.
The battle for control of the Senate shaped up months ago as a contest for the open seats —five in states where Democrats retired and three where Republicans stepped down.
Democrats faced daunting odds from the start, particularly since Kerry deemed most of the states hopeless and made little effort to challenge President Bush.
In a further bow to political reality, Democrats in many of those states ran as conservatives in hope of separating themselves from the top of the ticket. But interviews with voters leaving their polling places underscored the flaw in the strategy.
In North Carolina, Burr gained the votes of nearly 9 in 10 of Bush’s supporters. Vitter’s level of support was nearly as high in Louisiana, as was DeMint’s in South Carolina.
‘We ran as a team’
“We ran as a team,” said Sen. George Allen of Virginia, chairman of the Republican senatorial committee.
Only a few incumbents struggled.
Specter was one, winning re-election in Pennsylvania by drawing slightly more than 52 percent of the vote. It was a nationally important race. His victory places him in line to head the Judiciary Committee and preside over hearings on any Supreme Court nominees who reach the Senate in the next two years.
Bunning, a Kentucky Republican in his first term in the Senate, was another. After a particularly caustic campaign, he fell behind Mongiardo early in the evening in Kentucky before moving ahead. With all precincts reporting Wednesday, he apparently had defeated Mongiardo by 51 percent to 49 percent, with a margin of slightly more than 20,000 votes out of 1.7 million cast.
In Georgia, Isakson, who replaced former House Speaker Newt Gingrich in Congress in 1999, coasted to victory. He triumphed over Rep. Denise Majette in a campaign to replace Sen. Zell Miller, a Democrat who crossed party lines to deliver a memorably anti-Kerry speech at the Republican National Convention.
GOP captures Edwards’ seat
In North Carolina, Burr triumphed over Erskine Bowles, who was making his second try for the Senate in two years after a turn as President Bill Clinton’s chief of staff. Burr made much of his rival’s resumé 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 Tenenbaum, the state education superintendent. She stumbled early but then found her campaign legs with an attack on DeMint’s support for a national sales tax. He battled back, however, and won handily in a state that Bush carried, as well.
Republicans who won new terms included Richard Shelby of Alabama, Christopher 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, 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.
MSNBC.com's Mike Brunker, NBC producer Nannette Noffsinger and The Associated Press contributed to this report.