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A wild and woolly finish to 2008

With almost all the races finally decided, Democrats look to have netted 21 house seats this year
/ Source: National Journal

It seems entirely appropriate that this tumultuous and unpredictable election year would start coming to a close with the kind of events we have seen in Georgia, Louisiana, Minnesota and Ohio in recent days.

In last week's Georgia Senate general election runoff and in the hurricane-delayed Louisiana House races, the lesson learned was that Democrats have difficulty driving enormous black turnout levels when President-elect Barack Obama is not at the top of the ticket and that he still is not exactly catnip for many Southern white voters.

Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., easily beat back Jim Martin, his Democratic challenger, 57-43 percent.

The absence of Libertarian candidate Allen Buckley, whose 3-percent showing in last month's general election likely denied Chambliss the majority needed to avoid the runoff, and of Obama's boost to black turnout was key. Obama invested heavily in Georgia during the general election and gave Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., quite a scare, with McCain winning 52-47 percent. For the runoff, Republicans deployed their stars, sending McCain's running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, and everyone else who would pitch in to campaign with Chambliss.

Although Obama recorded campaign messages for Martin, he did not go down to Georgia and national Democrats grew less optimistic in the week heading into the runoff that Martin could pull off a win.

For Martin to have delivered an upset, he would have had to do it Nov. 4, with Obama at the top and Buckley grabbing conservatives disaffected with Chambliss' support for immigration reform and the financial rescue package.

There might be a recount in Louisiana's 4th District, but Republican physician John Fleming has a 356-vote edge over Caddo Parish District Attorney Paul Carmouche, the Democratic candidate, in the complete but unofficial results from Saturday's general election.

If that lead holds up for another day or two, as they check the math on the machine counts, it's likely to stand. This first stage is where the most votes can shift, when numbers can be transposed and simple arithmetic errors frequently crop up. Past that stage, big changes are less frequent.

While Fleming was arguably not the strongest of the three major Republican contenders for the seat in the primary, Carmouche, a conservative, pro-gun and anti-abortion rights Democrat was clearly the strongest candidate his party could have fielded in this district, which is heavily Republican but still has a substantial black Democratic constituency.

When Hurricane Gustav delayed the Nov. 4 balloting, it probably cost Democrats substantially, as Carmouche needed an Obama-driven black turnout.

Of course, the real eye-popper in the Pelican State was the surprise loss of indicted Democratic Rep. William Jefferson to lawyer Anh (Joseph) Cao, an independent who recently became a Republican to take on Jefferson. Cao will become the first Vietnamese-American elected to the House.

Jefferson has been awaiting trial on federal charges for money laundering and bribery but has been re-elected with these allegations hanging over his head before.

What appears to have happened is that two forces joined: those who would vote against Jefferson no matter what, based on ethics, issues and party; and Democrats who had tried unsuccessfully to unseat Jefferson in the party primary, then decided that the best way to get rid of him was to beat him in a general election and grab the seat back for Democrats in 2010.

This is essentially what Republicans did earlier this year in unseating their own incumbent, Rep. Bill Sali, in Idaho's 1st District.

In Jefferson's district, it appears that black voters largely stayed home while whites came out in considerably higher numbers. Again, had Obama been on the ballot, the outcome would likely have been different.

Meanwhile, in Ohio's 15th District, the contest to replace Republican Rep. Deborah Pryce is finally over, with Democrat Mary Jo Kilroy narrowly beating Republican state Sen. Steve Stivers. The result means Democrats captured three seats from the GOP in the Buckeye State this year, with Rep.-elect Steve Driehaus defeating Rep. Steve Chabot and Rep.-elect John Boccieri beating Republican Kirk Schuring for the seat of retiring Rep. Ralph Regula.

Rounding out things is the ongoing Minnesota recount, where GOP Sen. Norm Coleman and Democrat Al Franken both claim they are in the lead, even with the recount over. The Minneapolis Star Tribune estimates Coleman's lead is 192 votes. Franken's campaign estimates Franken is up by four votes. This is truly the campaign that will not die.

Of particular irony is that one hurricane, Katrina, hit Louisiana hard in 2005 and hurt Republicans politically from coast to coast in 2005, but another one, Gustav, helped them win two seats this year, an otherwise dismal year for the Grand Old Party.

So it appears that Democrats will have scored a net gain of 21 seats in the House and either seven or eight in the Senate, depending upon how the Minnesota recount goes, with Coleman seeming to have the upper hand there.