By all accounts, George W. Bush had just sat down to dinner at the White House when he received the first good news of the night: His brother Jeb was looking like a shoo-in for a second term as Florida's governor. If that whetted the president's appetite for the taste of political victory, he was not to be disappointed. Throughout the night, Republicans served up one stunning win after another, chewing up opponents at every level on the way to a historic power shift in Washington.
The sheer size of the GOP wave caught everyone-including the president-by surprise. Normally in bed before 10 p.m., President Bush announced he'd stay up until he knew the outcome in Tallahassee, a race the Democrats had called their No. 1 priority anywhere in the country. Late polls suggested the younger Bush was vulnerable, and a loss would have been a tremendous embarrassment to the White House.
But instead of a long night of nail-biting, the president stayed up into the wee small hours placing congratulatory phone calls to GOP winners across the country. More than any other president in history, Mr. Bush had wagered an enormous amount of his own political capital by campaigning in 23 states this mid-term election. Again and again he asked voters to show their support for his agenda by backing his local surrogates. Had he failed to deliver after almost two weeks of non-stop campaigning, emboldened Democrats would have seen Mr. Bush as politically vulnerable, further weakening the prospects for his legislative agenda in the final two years of his term.
Florida was the first sign that the president's gamble had paid off. Television commentators could only blink in surprise at Jeb Bush's overwhelming margin of victory. This race was supposed to take hours-perhaps days-to call. If the president's ceaseless campaigning worked so well in Florida, could it be a sign of things to come?
All eyes quickly turned to the Senate, where Republicans needed to pick up a single seat to recapture the majority. Pundits were still talking about the GOP's easy Florida win when they got another jolt: Elizabeth Dole, in a supposedly tight Senate contest in North Carolina, was posting blow-out numbers against Erskine Bowles, a former Clinton administration official. Like Florida, the race was over almost as soon as the counting began.
Democratic pundits were getting visibly nervous. Though they continued to insist a Republican takeover in the Senate was a long shot, the early numbers suggested otherwise. In Georgia, Republican Rep. Saxby Chambliss maintained a consistent lead over incumbent Democratic Sen. Max Cleland as results trickled in. The picture was much the same in New Hampshire, where Democrats had high hopes of picking up an open Republican seat. Their candidate, Gov. Jeanne Shaheen, trailed GOP Rep. John Sununu throughout the early evening. Democrats talked bravely of a come-from-behind win, but one by one the state's more liberal cities were fully counted, while rural districts continued to deliver big numbers to the Republicans.
At 10:15 p.m. (all times Eastern), an unusually cautious Associated Press declared New Hampshire for the GOP, obliterating Democrats' hopes of a pickup in the East. Thirty minutes later the news became even worse as Georgia, too, was called for the Republicans. Instead of leaving the Eastern time zone with the two-seat pickup they'd hoped for, Democrats were now saddled with an unexpected loss. To maintain control of the Senate, they'd have to take a Republican-held seat in the all-important Midwest. But the lesson from the East Coast looked grim: Almost everywhere that Air Force One had touched down in the campaign's final days, GOP poll numbers had taken off. If the trend continued in states like Missouri and Minnesota, where Mr. Bush had practically set up residence, the Democratic Party was headed into exile.
Democrats found a glimmer of hope at 11:00 p.m., when Republican Sen. Tim Hutchinson fell to Mark Pryor in Arkansas. By ousting a Republican incumbent, Democrats had erased the advantage gained by the GOP in Georgia. With no further turnovers, the Democrats would maintain their one-vote control of the Senate.
Still, they were clearly on the defensive: By midnight, only four races remained too close to call, and embattled Democrats held three of them. Returns in the four Senate races were tantalizingly slow, but other statewide contests hinted at Democratic weakness. In Minnesota, GOP gubernatorial hopeful Tim Pawlenty led his Democratic rival by double digits, signaling potential trouble for Walter Mondale. In Colorado, by contrast, Sen. Wayne Allard took comfort in a huge lead by Gov. Bill Owen, a fellow Republican.
At 12:30 a.m., the trends in Colorado became official and Mr. Allard was reelected to a second term. Democrats now had no hope of picking off a Republican seat, while three of their own candidates remained vulnerable. A single defeat in Minnesota, Missouri, or South Dakota would spell disaster.
Over the next several hours, returns trickled in. Minnesota's hand count seemed to take forever, while half of South Dakota's ballots were delayed by the state's split time zone. In Missouri, Republican Jim Talent led for much of the night, but crucial Democratic precincts in St. Louis-the site of a GOP lawsuit over voter fraud in 2000-remained uncounted.
The breakthrough came at 2:00 a.m., when Missouri Sen. Jeanne Carnahan took the podium. Minus the fanfare of a major announcement, commentators assumed she would simply give her supporters an update, or perhaps announce some sort of legal challenge to questionable ballots. Instead, she conceded the race to Mr. Talent and quietly took leave of the spotlight into which she'd been thrust when her governor-husband died in a plane crash two years earlier.
And that, despite predictions of protracted re-counts and nasty legal battles, was how history was made. Armed with 50 seats and the tie-breaking vote of Vice President Cheney, Republicans were guaranteed control of the Senate, where Majority Leader Tom Daschle has buried much of the president's legislative agenda for the past two years. Hours later, another big win in Minnesota cemented GOP control at 51 to 49, allaying fears that a defection by liberal GOP Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.) might once again upset a delicate 50-50 balance. (A Dec. 7 runoff in Louisiana could net one more seat for the Republicans if they can defeat freshman Sen. Mary Landrieu, a moderate Democrat.)
For President Bush, already basking in the glow of his brother's win and the re-conquest of the Senate, things apparently couldn't get much better-and yet they did. His aggressive campaigning helped the GOP pick up a handful of additional seats in the House of Representatives, a feat that only two presidents before him have accomplished in mid-term elections.
Democrats were stunned by easy wins by GOP incumbents such as Anne Northup in Kentucky and Shelley Moore Capito in West Virginia, both of whom were thought vulnerable in left-leaning districts. In Minnesota and Florida, Republican challengers knocked off entrenched Democratic incumbents, largely on the strength of Mr. Bush's frequent forays into those states. And in Georgia, the coattails that helped Saxby Chambliss in his Senate race also helped elect two new Republican House members in districts specifically drawn to favor the Democrats.
The Bush juggernaut proved to be a factor even in governors' races, where Democrats had long expected to take out a half dozen or more Republicans. While Democrats did manage to wrest control of major industrial states such as Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Illinois, the GOP fought back with some surprises of its own. Traditional Democratic bastions like Maryland, Vermont, and Hawaii all sent Republicans to the state capital for the first time in decades, and Republican challengers knocked off Democratic incumbents in South Carolina and Georgia.
Instead of losing six governorships, Republicans saw a net loss of just one. Democrats, who boasted right up until Election Day that they would win a majority of governorships, eventually had to settle for parity at best. (Outcomes in Arizona and Oregon remained uncertain. Alabama faced a re-count after one county took 7,000 votes away from Republican Bob Riley as the result of a supposed software glitch.)
Democrats tried to take solace in scattered races like the surprise defeat of Rep. Steve Largent in his bid for governor of Oklahoma or the ouster of liberal GOP Rep. Connie Morella after 16 years of representing the Washington suburbs. They also avoided a still-bigger deficit in the Senate when Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) overcame a strong challenge by Rep. John Thune. The winning margin was just 527 votes out of 334,000 cast.
Despite such glimmers of hope for the Democrats, the party's disappointment was palpable and the recriminations immediate. A tired-looking Dick Gephardt announced he would not run for Democratic leader of the House; younger members-Harold Ford of Tennessee was among the first-suggested it might be time for a change.
In the Senate, meanwhile, outgoing Majority Leader Tom Daschle came under withering criticism from all sides. Moderate Democrats faulted him for blocking the creation of a Department of Homeland Security, an issue that President Bush hammered at relentlessly in his stump speeches across the country. But liberals insisted the party had been too accommodating with the president, giving in to pressure for a tax cut that alienated some of the Democrats' core supporters and blurred the lines between the parties.
Although Mr. Gephardt handily won reelection and Mr. Daschle wasn't even on the ballot this year, both men emerged as losers in their ultimate ambition: the presidency. Without the majority leader's post or the speaker's gavel, neither is well positioned to dominate the headlines or provide a serious counterweight to President Bush. Moreover, by losing seats despite favorable odds and the pull of history, both have tarnished their reputations as savvy election strategists.
The would-be political dynasty of the Clintons also looked like a big loser after Tuesday's voting. The former president campaigned almost as hard as the current one, hitting 20 states in an effort to raise money and rally the troops. But despite Mr. Clinton's vaunted ability to motivate the Democratic base, the party's turnout was disappointing at best in key contests such as Florida and Maryland. Throughout the Southeast, black voters stayed home in droves, undoing the Democratic gains of 1998. And in some races, including North Carolina and his own home state of Arkansas, Democratic candidates went out of their way to avoid any contact with the tarnished ex-president.
Mr. Bush, by contrast, emerged as one of the strongest presidents in memory by taking one of the biggest gambles. Like no other leader before him, he hand-delivered millions of votes to his party, defying the pull of history to pull in perhaps a dozen or more candidates on his coattails. Even Ronald Reagan, with his enormous popularity, never risked his reputation on such a strong mid-term campaign push.
With approval ratings still hovering in the upper 60s and a majority in both houses of Congress, Mr. Bush can now claim a popular mandate that would have been inconceivable following his controversial election two years ago. Many Democrats will try to sharpen their differences with the president, but party centrists-especially those hailing from the South-will likely ally themselves with key Bush proposals, from creating a Department of Homeland Defense to making tax cuts permanent. No one wants to be the next Max Cleland.
In the short term, hundreds of judicial nominees can now look forward to a swift hearing by the full Senate after a years-long blockade by Patrick Leahy and the Senate Judiciary Committee. Further down the road, the White House may be emboldened to push ahead with school choice, introduce a flat tax or national sales tax, or even partially privatize Social Security. Any such proposals would certainly meet with resistance by Republican moderates, but the president may now be more likely than ever to rely on his own political instincts.
Those instincts certainly seem more accurate than those of the news media. Like generals preparing for the last war, network journalists burned by premature calls two years ago were supercautious in declaring winners. But it was President Bush who threw caution to the winds during his relentless traveling on Air Force One, and on election night reporters were watching his contrails, and his coattails, in awe.