SOUTH: Senate Democrats’ Doom Sealed by Five Open Seats

Posted November 3, 2004 at 3:42pm

The South was ground zero in the wave of Republican pickups in the Senate Tuesday, with Democrats losing all five of their open seats in the region.

In perhaps the biggest surprise, Rep. David Vitter (R) took 51 percent of the vote on Tuesday in Louisiana’s all-party open primary, allowing him to avoid a long-expected December runoff by winning the seat of retiring Sen. John Breaux (D) outright.

Rep. Chris John (D) finished a disappointing second with 29 percent of the vote, despite the heavy backing of Breaux and national Democrats, who had endorsed the Congressman and sent significant financial and staff support to his campaign.

Vitter’s victory marks the first time since Reconstruction that Louisiana has elected a Republican to the Senate — an ominous sign for Democrats in the one Southern state where they still enjoy some electoral success.

Elsewhere in the South, Republicans picked up open Senate seats in Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Florida.

In Florida, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Mel Martinez (R) narrowly defeated former state Education Commissioner Betty Castor (D) to win the seat of retiring Sen. Bob Graham (D).

The hotly contested Senate race fell largely along the same lines as the presidential race, with Castor garnering roughly the same number of votes as Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Martinez slightly underperforming President Bush (R) in the state.

There was no other notable Congressional action elsewhere in the Sunshine State on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, in North Carolina, Rep. Richard Burr (R) handed former Clinton White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles (D) his second straight open-seat Senate loss in as many cycles.

Despite pouring more than $3 million of his own money into his campaign in October, Bowles finished with 47 percent while Burr, who garnered some early criticism for a sluggish start in the race, took 52 percent. Bowles lost to now-Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R) in 2002, 54 percent to 45 percent.

In the state’s two open-seat House races, state Sen. Virginia Foxx (R) and state Rep. Patrick McHenry (R) won as expected Tuesday. Also, Rep. Charles Taylor (R-N.C.), who had been targeted by Democrats, won a relatively easy victory over Buncombe County Commissioner Patsy Keever (D), 55 percent to 45 percent. In one bright spot for Democrats, Gov. Mike Easley (D) won a second term, and the Democrats also took back control of the closely divided state House.

In neighboring South Carolina, Rep. Jim DeMint (R) took 54 percent to 44 percent for state Superintendent of Education Inez Tenenbaum (D) to claim the seat held for nearly four decades by retiring Sen. Fritz Hollings (D).

DeMint’s campaign overcame several impolitic comments — the most notable of which was when he said he did not believe homosexuals or pregnant single women should be school teachers — to take advantage of the strong Republican lean of the state.

Tenenbaum was clearly the best candidate that South Carolina Democrats could have put forward, and her defeat could signal an extended trip into the political wilderness for the party in the state.

Former Rep. Bob Inglis (R) easily won the race to succeed DeMint in the House. Inglis had previously held the solidly Republican 4th district from 1992 to 1998, before losing a Senate race to Hollings.

Just as DeMint’s win was expected, so too was the victory by Georgia Rep. Johnny Isakson (R), who succeeds retiring Sen. Zell Miller (D). Isakson defeated Rep. Denise Majette (D) with 58 percent of the vote, after Majette’s long-shot campaign failed to gain traction in the GOP-trending Peach State.

He will join Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), who was elected in 2002. It will mark the first time since Reconstruction that the state has been represented by two Republicans in the Senate. Separately, Georgia Republicans took over the state House, despite a large Democratic margin going into the election.

In the meantime, there was good news for House Democrats Tuesday night in Georgia’s closely watched 12th district contest, where the party scored one of its two ousters of GOP incumbents this year.

Freshman Rep. Max Burns (R), a top target for Democrats since the beginning of the cycle, fell to Athens-Clarke County Commissioner John Barrow (D), 52 percent to 48 percent.

The district heavily favors Democrats, and Barrow should have little trouble holding the seat in the future.

In the state’s only other potentially competitive contest, freshman Rep. Jim Marshall (D) easily won his rematch with former Bibb County Commissioner Calder Clay (R), 63 percent to 37 percent.

The picture was less rosy for Democrats across Kentucky on Tuesday.

In a nailbiter, Kentucky Sen. Jim Bunning (R) held off a late, hard-charging challenge from state Sen. Daniel Mongiardo (D). Bunning edged out Mongiardo 51 percent to 49 percent.

Bunning imperiled himself by comparing Mongiardo’s appearance to that of deposed Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s sons and for using a TelePrompTer during a debate to deliver his opening and closing statements.

Seeing an opening, national Democrats poured upwards of $1 million into the state for ads that attacked Bunning and questioned whether he was mentally fit for the office.

On the House side, Republicans picked up the 4th district seat of retiring Rep. Ken Lucas (D), as 2002 GOP nominee Geoff Davis won an unexpectedly lopsided victory over former news anchor Nick Clooney (D).

Clooney, who lost 55 percent to 44 percent, drew national attention for his bid because he is the father of actor George Clooney and brother of the late singer Rosemary Clooney.

In the other closely watched House race in the Bluegrass State, Rep. Anne Northup (R) cruised to a fifth term with 60 percent — easily her highest winning margin ever. Democrats were initially enthused about Jefferson County Clerk of Courts Tony Miller (D), but his campaign was a disappointment.

While Vitter won the Senate seat outright, Louisiana’s all-party primary system delivered runoffs in two closely contested House campaigns. The runoffs are scheduled for Dec. 4.

Retiring Rep. Billy Tauzin (R) is halfway to seeing his youngest son, lobbyist Billy Tauzin III, elected to replace him in the southeastern Louisiana 3rd district.

Tauzin III led the balloting with 32 percent, while former state Rep. Charlie Melancon (D) secured a spot in the runoff with 24 percent. State Sen. Craig Romero (R), who ran a surprisingly strong campaign, barely missed making the runoff with 23 percent.

The two other Democrats in the race — former Senate aide Charmaine Caccioppi and state Rep. Damon Baldone — took 7 percent and 10 percent, respectively.

Across the state in the southwestern 7th district left vacant by John, heart surgeon Charles Boustany (R) used a series of high-quality television ads, which were financed by his solid fundraising effort, to win the most votes Tuesday.

Boustany faces off against state Sen. Willie Mount (D) on Dec. 4. Mount was the leading Democratic votegetter, narrowly beating out state Sen. Don Cravins (D).

Party-switching Rep. Rodney Alexander (R) won with 59 percent, avoiding a runoff in the northern Louisiana 5th district. The same was true for former Health and Human Services Department official Bobby Jindal (R), who won the 1st district race to replace Vitter in a walk.