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Fight for Congress: no clear-cut winner

Democrats and Republicans seem destined to share the reins and will need to work together to avoid gridlock.

By CRAIG PITTMAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 8, 2000


For six years, Democrats have plotted to take back Congress from the Republicans. The GOP vowed it would not happen.

Tuesday night, after the most expensive battle in history for control of the House and Senate, the best either party could hope for was at least another two years of keeping the other side in check and trying to avoid gridlock.

Congressional races in Florida played a key role in that sharply divided outcome.

The Senate appeared headed for continued dominance by Republicans, but with a far smaller margin than ever before. That was thanks in part to Democratic state Insurance Commissioner Bill Nelson's victory over Republican Rep. Bill McCollum in the race to succeed Republican Sen. Connie Mack.

Meanwhile, in the House, the margin between the parties grew so thin that House Appropriations Chairman C.W. Bill Young, a Largo Republican who easily won re-election, said the lower chamber was likely to be split right down the middle. That could make it difficult for the new president to push through any sort of ambitious agenda.

"We'll be so evenly divided we may have more stalemate than ever," Young said. "In an evenly divided Congress, if you can't work out a bipartisan understanding, nothing gets done."

In the Senate, Republicans held a 54-46 edge before the voting, meaning Democrats needed to gain five seats to recapture the majority they lost to the GOP landslide six years ago. If Republicans hang onto their majority, it would give the GOP its first eight-year stretch of Senate supremacy since the 1930s.

But in Florida, Nelson grabbed the seat long held by Mack, who is retiring. He defeated McCollum, who was one of the House managers of President Clinton's impeachment trial but spent his campaign trying to moderate his conservative image. Exit polls showed Social Security was a prevailing issue among voters.

In the House, Democrats needed to pick up eight seats to dislodge the Republicans and regain the power they lost when the Newt Gingrich-led Republicans took over in 1994.

All 435 House seats were on the ballot, but the two sides focused their attention on 40 or so highly competitive races likely to determine which party would hold power alongside a new president.

Several Florida races were key to the House, including a bitterly contested Orlando-area race pitting Republican lawyer Ric Keller against Democrat Linda Chapin in a bid to succeed McCollum. That race went down to the wire Tuesday night, with Keller leading Chapin by 1,000 votes as of 10:30 p.m.

In another high-profile Florida race, incumbent Republican E. Clay Shaw was leading Democratic challenger Elaine Bloom 53 percent to 46 percent with about half the South Florida precincts counted.

Meanwhile, in a Lakeland-based seat that includes portions of Hillsborough and Pasco counties, 26-year-old Republican Adam Putnam -- who despite his youth is a veteran of the state Legislature -- was triumphing over 53-year-old Democrat Mike Stedem, a car dealer and grandfather running his first race.

However, Democratic incumbent Corrine Brown of Jacksonville stopped her Republican challenger, Jennifer S. Carroll, by winning 56 percent of the vote despite a House Ethics Committee investigation earlier this year.

With control of Congress at stake, both political parties dropped tens of millions of dollars on television advertising in a few dozen targeted races. So did a wide variety of special interests: unions, pharmaceutical companies and others that dropped millions more on commercials designed to sway voters.

For the first time in years, Democrats were able to compete financially with the GOP. In district after district, they used their money to accuse Republicans of working side-by-side with the special interests to thwart a patients' bill of rights, prescription drugs for Medicare, campaign finance overhaul and other legislation while pushing a tax cut designed principally to benefit the wealthy.

Republicans disputed those Democratic assertions, stressing instead that under their leadership the national debt was being paid down, the Social Security trust fund was off-limits to routine federal spending programs and more money was being diverted to defense.

- Information from Times wires was used in this report.

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