Republicans retain their Senate majority

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The Independent US

The Republicans retained their majority in the Senate last night, capturing three previously Democratic seats in the South, and fending off a strong challenge from the Democrats in Oklahoma.

The Republicans retained their majority in the Senate last night, capturing three previously Democratic seats in the South, and fending off a strong challenge from the Democrats in Oklahoma.

The main consolation on a tough night on the Congressional front for the Democrats was a sweeping victory for the rising party star Barack Obama, often talked of as a future president, in Illinois.

Mr Obama leapt to national attention with a stunning keynote speech at the Democratic Convention in July. When the new Congress convenes in January he will be the lone black senator, and only the third in recent history.

As it became apparent that the Democratic bid to wrest back control of the Senate had failed, all eyes were on the struggle in South Dakota, where Tom Daschle, Senate minority leader and the most powerful Democratic officeholder in Washington, inched ahead in early returns. But it was not clear whether he could prevail over his Republican opponent, the former congressman Jim Thune.

A Daschle defeat would not only throw the party leadership on Capitol Hill into turmoil. It would also be a massive psychological victory for the Republicans, who made Mr Daschle - branded as an "obstructionist" by the White House - a special target.

As the results came in, a beaming Bill Frist, the Senate majority leader, predicted that Republicans would increase their grip on the sharply divided Senate. "We're going to pick up seats," Mr Frist told CNN.

Democratic candidates were also in close struggles to hang onto seats in Florida and Louisiana. The defeat in North Carolina, the seat previously held by the vice-presidential candidate John Edwards, was another bitter blow. It saw a narrow defeat for Erskine Bowles, Bill Clinton's former chief of staff, who was trying to replace him. To offset potential losses there, Democrats were hoping to pick up Republican seats in Alaska and Colorado.

In Kentucky, the baseball hall-of-fame pitcher Jim Bunning edged ahead in his race with Democrat Dan Mongiardo, a surgeon. The 73-year-old Mr Bunning had seemed a certainty for re-election just a month ago, but some eccentric behaviour had brought him to the brink of defeat, amid rumours about his mental health.

The Republican hat-trick across the South means that the party will have at least 50 of the 100 Senate seats -and thus outright control.

If President Bush secures re-election, the 50 will amount to a majority, given that the casting vote in the event of a tie will rest with the Vice-President, Dick Cheney. If Mr Kerry moves to the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, then his Massachusetts senate seat will become vacant, until it is filled by a special election later in the year.

Thus the Republicans at worse are assured of a 50-49 majority for the next few months - and that assumes that the Democrats will hold on to their other seats. In the multi-candidate election in Louisiana, the Republican candidate was on the brink of passing the 50 per cent mark which would give him the seat without a run-off vote next month.

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