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College football is king in the South, and Republican electoral fortunes Tuesday appeared to split along major conference lines: The GOP was battered in the Atlantic Coast Conference strongholds of North Carolina and Virginia, but they prevented a Dixie disaster by holding their ground in key races in Southeastern Conference states, including Kentucky, Mississippi and Georgia.
On a night when both Virginia and North Carolina apparently voted for a Democratic presidential candidate for the first time in decades (Obama held a narrow lead in North Carolina at press time), the two states handed House and Senate Republicans some of their most significant defeats of the night.
In North Carolina, first-term Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R) lost a bitter contest to Democratic state Sen. Kay Hagan. In the closing days of the race, Dole aired ads linking Hagan a former Sunday school teacher and an elder in the Presbyterian church to a group called the Godless Americans Political Action Committee. The ads clearly did not help Dole much; the race was considered a dead heat in early October, but Hagan ultimately won 53 percent to 44 percent.
Republicans also lost an incumbent House Member, as high school teacher Larry Kissell (D) unseated five-term Rep. Robin Hayes (R) in the Tar Heel States Charlotte- area 8th district.
In Virginia, Republican Sen. John Warner retired after 30 years in the Senate, and former Gov. Mark Warner (D) beat out fellow former Gov. Jim Gilmore (R) to fill the seat. In the 109th Congress, the Old Dominion was represented by two Republican Senators. In the 111th, the commonwealth will send two Democratic Senators to Washington, Warner and Sen. Jim Webb, who unseated Sen. George Allen (R) in 2006.
Democrats also picked up at least two House seats in Virginia, as former foreign service officer Glenn Nye beat two-term Rep. Thelma Drake (R), and Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerry Connolly beat businessman Keith Fimian (R) in the race to replace Rep. Tom Davis (R), who is retiring after seven terms representing the Washington, D.C., suburbs.
At press time, Rep. Virgil Goode, who has represented the 5th district in the south-central area of the state since 1996, held a six-vote lead over Democratic challenger Tom Perriello with 100 percent of precincts reporting. The race may remain unresolved for weeks.
Republicans did hold one hotly contested seat in the states northern tip, as 14-term Rep. Frank Wolf carried about 60 percent of the vote in defeating challenger Judy Feder (D) in the 10th district.
While Democrats scored a few victories in other parts of the South including picking up a House seat in Alabama Republicans for the most part were able to avoid the major blood-letting that some were predicting a week ago.
In the SEC territories of Kentucky and Mississippi, two GOP Senators survived stiff challenges. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who appeared to be increasingly endangered in recent weeks, beat businessman Bruce Lunsford (D) by a comfortable margin, 53 percent to 47 percent. Mississippi Sen. Roger Wicker (R), appointed to fill the seat of Sen. Trent Lott when he resigned at the end of 2007, won his first full term by solidly defeating former Mississippi Gov. Ronnie Musgrove (D). The states senior Senator, Appropriations Committee ranking member Thad Cochran (R), was re-elected by a wide margin.