Washington Republicans appeared certain to retain control of the U.S. Senate Tuesday after pulling off key early wins in the South, and they had the prospect of widening their current narrow margin by winning several Senate races that were still undecided late Tuesday.
Democrat Barack Obama's landslide in Illinois, putting a formerly Republican seat in the Democratic camp, was more than offset when the GOP picked up seats in South Carolina, North Carolina and Georgia, while fending off fierce Democratic challenges to Republicans in Oklahoma and Kentucky.
In North Carolina, Republicans dealt a particularly symbolic blow to Democrats, as GOP Rep. Richard Burr defeated Democrat Erskine Bowles for the seat now held by Democratic vice presidential nominee John Edwards. Trailing for much of the campaign to Bowles, who had served as chief of staff to President Bill Clinton, Burr went on the attack and overcame Bowles' early lead with the help of a burst of GOP advertising in the campaign's final weeks.
Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., a prime GOP target, was in an urgent fight late Tuesday night to hold onto his seat. If Daschle loses his seat, it would be the first defeat for a Senate party leader since 1952 and would remove the highest-ranking Democrat in the country.
Regardless of who occupies the White House, continued Republican control of the Senate and House will be a crucial benefit to the GOP in deciding what kind of legislation is considered by Congress in the next administration. Republican domination also will give the party exclusive control over investigations that may arise over Iraq or any number of potential controversies.
Democrats had entered the contest for control of the Senate in a more difficult position than the GOP, because more of their incumbents were retiring. Republicans started the evening with a 51-48 majority in the Senate, with independent Sen. Jim Jeffords of Vermont generally voting with the Democrats.
Still undecided late Tuesday were key races in Colorado and Alaska, where Democrats hoped pick up seats. But Democrats also had to defend seats in Louisiana and Florida, as well as Daschle's in South Dakota.
In the House, Republicans also appeared certain to retain control. Republicans currently hold a 227-205 edge in the chamber -- with two vacancies in Republican-leaning districts and one independent who generally votes with the Democrats -- and only three dozen races were considered competitive. In a rare upset, Democrat Melissa Bean appeared to unseat Rep. Phil Crane, R-Ill., the longest-serving Republican in the House.
The GOP was assisted in House races by a controversial redistricting plan in Texas engineered by House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas. It re-drew electoral boundaries in a way that was likely to tip five Democratic-held districts toward a Republican majority.
Republicans had defeated three veteran Texas Democrats by late Tuesday: Rep. Charles Stenholm, a leading fiscal conservative, Rep. Martin Frost, a former member of the party's congressional leadership, and Rep. Max Sandlin.