The Democratic pursuit of 60 Senate seats received new life Tuesday night after Alaska Democrat Mark Begich was declared the winner against Ted Stevens, the longest-serving Republican in the Senate.
Begich defeated the Senate giant by a 3,724-vote margin after absentee and early votes were counted, a stunning end to a 40-year Senate career marred by Stevens’ conviction on corruption charges a week before the election.
Begich’s victory gives Democrats their 58th Senate seat, with the party still awaiting a pending recount in the too-close-to-call Minnesota Senate race and the Georgia Senate runoff next month. If Democrats win those two seats, they will reach a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate.
Democratic prospects of reaching 60 seats didn’t look so bright the day after the election. In Alaska, Stevens led Begich by more than 3,000 votes. In Minnesota, Republican Sen. Norm Coleman was holding a narrow lead. GOP Sen. Gordon Smith had not yet been declared the loser in the Oregon Senate race and in Georgia, Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss was just over the 50 percent mark necessary to win re-election in Georgia.
But over the ensuing two weeks, the landscape began to tilt in the Democrats’ favor. The Associated Press declared Jeff Merkley the winner over Smith in Oregon, Coleman’s lead shrank to 215 votes, Chambliss fell just short of the 50 percent threshold necessary for an outright victory, and Begich captured a majority of the nearly 90,000 absentee and early votes that were counted after Election Day to win the Alaska Senate seat.
Now, with the prospect of 60 Senate seats hanging in the balance, both parties are throwing everything they can at the two remaining undeclared races, pouring money, lawyers and field organizers into Georgia and Minnesota.
Developments on the ground suggest Democrats have a fighting chance of picking up both seats.
In Minnesota, Coleman’s razor-thin, 215-vote lead could easily dissipate as election officials hand count all 2.9 million ballots over the next several weeks. His campaign has already sounded alarms about Franken’s small gains during the post-election recanvassing process, and has criticized Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie as an unabashed Democratic partisan.
The Coleman campaign was deprived of a symbolic victory when Ritchie decided not to certify Coleman’s lead on Tuesday, opting to wait until the recount process is complete. For its part, the Franken campaign is seeking to count thousands of rejected absentee ballots, which could potentially overturn Coleman’s lead. The canvassing board delayed ruling on that Tuesday.
Minnesota election law has a liberal interpretation of voter intent, so as long as voters make their preference clear on the ballots, they will likely have their votes counted—even if the vote wasn’t tabulated on the machine. Over 24,000 ballots that recorded votes in the presidential race didn't record a tally in the Senate race. (The Coleman campaign said most of these voters simply didn't vote in the Senate race.)
Meanwhile, in Georgia, Democrats believe they have a shot at picking off Chambliss’ Senate seat now that the race is heading into a runoff, likely a low turnout affair where get-out-the-vote efforts will prove critical. Chambliss dramatically outspent Martin in the general election, $11 million to $2.5 million, but still failed to avoid a runoff. Now, as the campaigns essentially start from scratch, Martin will be at financial parity and aided by scores of leading Democratic operatives.
Democrats’ recent success in getting out the vote has left Martin’s campaign guardedly optimistic. While Barack Obama lost the state by five points, he came closer than most recent Democratic presidential candidates, boosted by the record high level of turnout among African-Americans across the state.
Martin has been trying to energize Democratic voter– particularly the state’s substantial black vote – by connecting his campaign to Obama.
Both of Martin’s television ads have made ample use of Obama –one featured his victory speech footage in Grant Park – and his campaign recycled a radio advertisement Obama recorded on Martin's behalf during the general election.
Obama’s campaign organization has also been tapped on Martin’s behalf. Immediately after the presidential election, the 25 Obama field offices in the state were converted into Martin offices, and dozens of Obama’s field organizers throughout the South were dispatched to Georgia to help turn out the vote.
Democrats believe that if most black voters who turned out in record numbers for Obama come out again and support Martin in the December 2 runoff, they will have a good chance at winning.
Former President Bill Clinton is heading to Atlanta Wednesday to rally Democrats and former Vice President Al Gore is following suit on Sunday.