Democratics stand firm in Senate Upsets dash hopes of Republicans for stronger majority

Election 1998 : Nation

November 04, 1998|By Jonathan Weisman and David Folkenflik | Jonathan Weisman and David Folkenflik,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Aided by an outpouring of support from African-Americans and Latinos as well as a Democratic protest at attacks on President Clinton, Democrats defied the oddsmakers yesterday and fought Republicans to a draw in the Senate.

The early upsets were stunning -- in particular the defeat of Republican Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato in New York -- as one close race after another broke Democratic. Republican dreams of a filibuster-proof, 60-vote majority lay in tatters, although they seemed realistic just weeks ago.

"We're ecstatic tonight," said a clearly relieved Tom Daschle, the Senate Democratic leader.

In North Carolina, Democrat John Edwards defeated incumbent Republican Sen. Lauch Faircloth. Ernest F. "Fritz" Hollings, a 32-year Senate veterans from South Carolina and last of the old-style southern Democrats, won another six-year lease on his seat. Former Rep. Blanche Lambert Lincoln, an Arkansas Democrat, easily held on to the seat vacated by retiring Democrat Dale Bumbers.

And embattled Democrats Russell D. Feingold of Wisconsin, Patty Murray of Washington state, Barbara Boxer of California, and Harry Reid of Nevada beat back their challengers.

"The issues were on the Democratic side," gloated California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

But Republican Peter Fitzgerald knocked off Democratic Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun in Illinois, and Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Bunning, a Republican representative, was putting up a fierce battle to defeat Democratic Rep. Scotty Baesler in hopes of claiming the seat vacated by Democrat Wendell Ford.

In the end, though, the Senate seemed almost certainly have the exact same balance of power in the 106th Congress that it had in the 105th: 55 Republicans and 45 Democrats.

In New York, the months-long mud slinging between the three-term D'Amato and Democratic Rep. Charles E. Schumer ended with Schumer scrambling across the finish line first.

The issues weren't local, but the attacks were highly personal, said Cornell University political scientist Theodore J. Lowi. "I thought nobody could beat that Senator D'Amato," Lowi said in bemusement last night.

"There were so many potholes filled, especially in New York City, that I thought he could never lose," Lowi said. "It turned out to be a question of who really is the least disliked man."

In North Carolina, Edwards, a Democratic trial lawyer, defeated conservative Republican freshman Sen. Faircloth, despite the GOP's all-out effort to link Edwards with scandal-tarred President Clinton.

And embattled Democratic senators held off their Republican challengers.

Hollings, a 32-year Senate veteran, not only beat back the stiff challenge from Republican Rep. Bob Inglis, he beat Inglis handily as part of a remarkable Democratic resurgence in heavily Republican South Carolina. An overwhelming African-American vote pushed Hollings to victory, along with Jim Hodges, the Democrat who upset incumbent Republican Gov. David Beasley.

"These have been dramatic, even shocking upsets, particularly in the southern states," said Tony Wyche, spokesman for the Democratic National Committee.

The key for Democrats was turnout. Democratic operatives marveled at the surge in African-American and Latino voters, and they seemed to make a difference.

In South Carolina, early numbers indicated Inglis won the white vote, but 90 percent of black voters cast ballots for Hollings.

Hollings was not the only embattled incumbent to win big. Boxer, a California Democrat, ran behind Republican challenger Matt Fong, California Treasurer, for much of the campaign season. But she ended up winning big, in part because Democrat Gray Davis won the state's gubernatorial race in a landslide, bringing other Democrats with him.

But it was also in part because Boxer ran a strong campaign in the final weeks, painting her opponent as a virulent conservative, too extreme for California. The campaign overcame her early and obvious problem: a direct link to President Clinton. Her daughter is married to Hillary Rodham Clinton's brother.

"She might be what Matt Fong said she was, an extreme liberal, but she's an extraordinary campaigner. When Congress adjourned, the cloud [of the Clinton scandal] disappeared and she did what she does best," said Mark Petracca, a political scientist at the University of California at Irvine.

As expected, former Democratic Gov. Evan Bayh of Indiana easily beat Fort Wayne Mayor Paul Helmke in the race to replace retiring Republican Sen. Daniel R. Coats. Eighteen years ago, Bayh's father, Birch Bayh, was swept aside by the Reagan landslide and replaced with a young conservative named Dan Quayle. Since then, Indiana has been a reliably conservative and GOP state.

But Evan Bayh built a solid reputation as a moderate and was highly popular as governor. Coats retired, in part, because he knew he would have to face Bayh in any re-election bid.

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