WASHINGTON (AP) –Republicans toppled Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle–winning their biggest Senate prize after sweeping the South–including a Florida seat Wednesday. Alaska remained undecided.
Republicans were assured 54 Senate seats–expanding their current 51-48 margin–with one Democratic-leaning independent.
Daschle–who was elected to the Senate in 1986 and also served eight years in the House–planned to concede midday in Sioux Falls–SD–according to congressional sources who spoke on condition of anonymity. Labeled an obstructionist by Republicans–Daschle garnered 49 percent of the vote to 51 percent for his GOP challenger–former Rep. John Thune. With all precincts reporting–Daschle fell short by about 4,500 votes.
The last time a Senate leader was unseated was in 1952–when Barry Goldwater of Arizona turned Senate Majority Leader Ernest McFarland out of office.
An Associated Press exit poll showed that South Dakota voters concerned with moral values and terrorism helped Thune.
Democrats hoped for a defection to ease the pain. Rhode Island Sen. Lincoln Chafee said he would consider switching parties if President Bush were re-elected.
”I’m not ruling it out,” Chafee told The Providence Journal. Known for moderate views that often run counter to the Bush administration–Chafee said he cast a write-in vote for Bush’s father–George HAW. Bush–in Tuesday’s election–calling it a ”symbolic protest.”
In Florida–Democrat Betty Castor conceded defeat Wednesday in a tight contest with Mel Martinez–a Cuban emigrant who left Bush’s Cabinet to run for the seat opened by retiring Sen. Bob Graham–a Democrat. Martinez will be the nation’s first Cuban-American senator.
Republicans were surprised by their Senate showing–winning competitive races in Georgia–North Carolina–South Carolina and Louisiana–where the GOP won its first seat since Reconstruction.
Democrats had a nearly insurmountable hurdle to take control of the Senate–since most of the competitive races were in states where Bush was strong.
In Illinois–state Sen. Barack Obama easily won–making him the only black member of the new Senate that convenes in January. He cautioned against a GOP mandate.
”You still need 60 votes in the Senate to make things happen,” Obama said Wednesday on NBC’s ”Today.” ”The Republicans don’t have 60 votes. My hope would be that they recognize that–and the Democrats are willing to serve as a loyal opposition.”
The strengthened Republican Senate probably will mean more votes to confirm nominees to the Supreme Court in a second Bush term. One Republican winner–Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania–is in line to become chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee–which holds confirmation hearings on court nominees.