Republicans battle Democrats for renewed Senate control |

Republicans battle Democrats for renewed Senate control

AP Special Correspondent

WASHINGTON (AP) – Republicans and Democrats swapped seats in Georgia and Illinois Tuesday night as they battled for Senate control in a string of races concentrated in the South and West. GOP Sen. Jim Bunning struggled for a new term in Kentucky.

Democratic State Sen. Barack Obama, a political star in the making, easily won his election in Illinois, and will be the only black among 100 senators when Congress convenes in January. Rep. Johnny Isakson claimed the Georgia seat for Republicans, completing a swap of seats where incumbents retired.

Most incumbents of both parties coasted to new terms after campaigns against little-known and poorly funded opponents.

But there were exceptions – prominently so.

Democratic Leader Tom Daschle faced stiff competition for a new term in South Dakota, where former Rep. John Thune mounted a challenge.

Bunning, 73, trailed Democratic rival Dan Mongiardo with votes tallied in more than half the state’s precincts after a particuarly caustic campaign. The challenger was gaining 52 percent of the vote.

Republicans hold 51 seats in the current Senate. Democrats have 48, along with the support of independent Sen. Jim Jeffords of Vermont.

Obama, 43, had no difficulty dispatching Alan Keyes, a black conservative whose outspoken views against abortion and homosexuality earned the disdain from some members of his own party. Even so, the Democratic state legislator’s victory in a race to replace Republican Sen. Peter Fitzgerald, capped a remarkable rise. He first gained national prominence this summer when his party’s presidential candidate, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, tapped him to deliver the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention.

Isakson, who replaced former House Speaker Newt Gingrich in Congress in 1999, coasted to victory in Georgia. 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.

Most of the competitive races unfolded in states where veteran lawmakers retired, each party drawing hope from the lineup.

Retirements by Democrats in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida and Louisiana raised Republican hopes of padding their majority.

GOP retirements in Illinois, Oklahoma and Colorado stirred optimism among Democrats that they could regain power. Ticket-splitting was key to their chances – Kerry made little or no effort against President Bush in seven of the nine states with the most competitive Senate races.

North Carolina, where Democratic vice presidential candidate John Edwards gave up his seat, was one of them. There, GOP Rep. Richard Burr battled Erskine Bowles, former chief of staff to President Bill Clinton, making his second try for the Senate. Edwards made calls to radio stations serving black audiences during the day in hopes of keeping the seat in Democratic hands.

In next-door South Carolina, Republican Rep. Jim DeMint and Inez Tenenbaum, state Education Superintendent, clashed for the seat vacated by Democratic Sen. Ernest Hollings.

Among Democratic incumbents, Sens. Patrick Leahy of Vermont coasted to a sixth term, Christopher Dodd a fifth and Barbara Mikulski a fourth. Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana won for a second time.

Republicans who won new terms included Sens. Richard Shelby of Alabama and Kit Bond of Missouri, both elected for a fourth time; also Sens. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire for a third and George Voinovich of Ohio for a second.

In all, there were 34 seats on the ballot, 19 held by Republicans and 15 by Democrats.

Multimillion dollar campaigns were commonplace in the most contested races, and the Daschle-Thune race set the pace.

Through mid-October, Daschle had spent about $16 million in his quest for a fourth term in a sparsely settled state. Thune’s expenditures reached $10 million.

When it came to personal attacks, the Kentucky race was hard to match. Democrats ran television commercials questioning Bunning’s mental fitness for office. His allies, in turn, openly speculated about Mongiardo’s sexual orientation.

Pickup dash matter.