Originally created 11/05/02

Republicans, Democrats battle for Congress



Republicans and Democrats battled for control of Congress in Tuesday's midterm elections clouded by terrorism, the threat of war and a shaky economy. Gubernatorial contests marked ballots from Maine to California.

In the last campaign of a free-spending era, all 435 House seats were on the ballot, as well as 34 Senate seats and three dozen statehouse races. Voters filled state legislatures and school boards, decided whether to legalize possession of small amounts of marijuana in Nevada, and settled countless ballot issues elsewhere.

At midterm, President Bush stumped energetically for Republican congressional candidates who could advance his legislative agenda over the next two years - and for gubernatorial hopefuls who could aid his re-election in 2004.

Democrats, too, campaigned with one eye on this election and one on the next, none more so than Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri, the party's House leader. Gephardt was leading the drive to end eight years of Republican rule of that chamber, and is a likely presidential contender in two years.

Even the top gubernatorial races had presidential overtones. Democrats made defeating GOP Gov. Jeb Bush in Florida a national priority - working against the president's brother in the state that was at the center of the nation's convulsive White House contest in 2000.

Republicans battled history as well as Democrats, and expressed optimism they could prevail. The president's party has lost House seats in every midterm election except three in the past century, an average of 30 seats. The average midterm loss of Senate seats was four.

But the GOP had advantages, as well. These included a political landscape transformed by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and a president whose approval ratings remained at enviable levels despite a sputtering economy.

Republicans also enjoyed a financial superiority. A Federal Election Commission analysis said the Republican National Committee and its congressional campaign arms had outraised their Democratic counterparts by $184 million through mid-October.

Democrats sought a gain of seven seats to win a House majority. In the Senate, a shift of one seat to the Republicans would guarantee them at least a 50-50 split, giving them control on the basis of Vice President Dick Cheney's ability to break ties.

In all, Republicans were defending 23 of the 36 governorships on the ballot, while Democrats were defending 11. Two seats were held by outgoing independents.

Several of the nation's big-state governors sought new terms, from Democrat Gray Davis in California to Republicans Rick Perry in Texas, George Pataki in New York and Bush in Florida.

Democrats took particular aim at statehouses across the Midwest where the GOP has long held power - a belt of states stretching from Pennsylvania to Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin.

The GOP was defending 20 Senate seats, to 14 for the Democrats, and a short list of incumbents in both parties faced strong tests.

Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson battled Rep. John Thune in South Dakota; and Democratic Sen. Jean Carnahan ran against former Rep. Jim Talent in a bid for the four years remaining on her late husband's term in Missouri. Embattled GOP incumbents included Sen. Tim Hutchinson, up against Mark Pryor in Arkansas; and Wayne Allard, in a Colorado rematch with Tom Strickland.

There were fierce open seat battles on the ballot as well - none more so than in New Hampshire. There, Democratic Gov. Jeanne Shaheen clashed with Rep. John Sununu, who defeated incumbent Sen. Bob Smith in a September primary.

The nation's costliest Senate race was in North Carolina, where Republican Elizabeth Dole and Democrat Erskine Bowles spent $20 million in a struggle to replace retiring Sen. Jesse Helms.

In Minnesota, former Vice President Walter F. Mondale sought a return to the Senate in a race against former St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman. Mondale took his place on the ballot less than a week before the election, following the death of Democratic Sen. Paul Wellstone.

And in New Jersey, former Sen. Frank Lautenberg replaced Sen. Bob Torricelli on the ballot in October.

Several incumbents in both parties had little cause for worry. Among them were Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, getting ready to challenge for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination, and Mitch McConnell in Kentucky, in line to become Senate Republican whip in the new Congress.

The battle for House control came down to roughly 40 competitive districts, races scattered across the country where the parties spent millions in campaign advertising - much of it negative - in search of an edge.

Several were new seats, the result of redistricting mandated by the Constitution to adjust House districts for population shifts. Others were seats left open by incumbents who retired or sought other office.

Only a small number of congressional incumbents struggled for new terms, especially in the House.

There, lawmakers in both parties used redistricting to make sure the new district lines posed no risk to their political futures.

As a result, there were 74 House members - and two candidates seeking first terms - without major party opposition. Hundreds more had only token rivals.

The campaign was anything but predictable.

A month before the election, Democrats pulled a ballot switch in the New Jersey Senate race, Sen. Bob Torricelli abandoning a doomed re-election campaign. Lautenberg took his place after an unsuccessful Republican effort to block him in court.

A few weeks later, Wellstone died in a plane crash in northern Minnesota. Democrats quickly coalesced around Mondale.

Democrats went into the campaign counting on historical trends to help them end eight years of Republican rule in the House.

But the terrorist attacks of 14 months ago sent Bush's approval ratings to stratospheric levels. The threat of more attacks, coupled with Bush's threat to use military force against Saddam Hussein in Iraq, complicated Democratic efforts to turn the election into a referendum on the economy.

In one regard, the midterm elections marked the end of an era.

New restrictions on campaign fund raising take effect Wednesday. With the exception of any recounts or run-offs, political parties will no longer be able to accept unlimited donations from unions, corporations and wealthy individuals.

Ironically, that marked an ominous development for the Democrats, the party that supplied most of the votes needed to approve the new restrictions.

The two parties were roughly equal when it came to raising so-called soft money over the past two years.

Most of the fund-raising disparity - $162 million - came in so-called hard money, the limited donations that will remain legal.