When the polls closed on Nov. 6, everybody knew that Louisiana's US Senate race was going to be close. What nobody knew was that five months later, the outcome would still be in question.
Sen. Mary Landrieu (D) is in possession of the seat, but her rival, state Rep. Woody Jenkins (R) is still fighting to have the election results reversed or a new election called. He maintains he has found more than 7,400 fraudulent votes, which would nullify the election results that showed Ms. Landrieu winning by 5,778 votes with 1.8 million cast.
The end to the electoral odyssey could be in sight, though. The US Senate Rules Committee is expected to decide what to do next on April 17. If the committee decides in Landrieu's favor, it's all over. But there is a range of other options, some of which could result in the matter being debated on the Senate floor - with the possibility of a Democratic minority filibustering to save its newest member.
In terms of national politics, the stakes are high; the GOP holds a 55-to-45 advantage over the Democrats in the upper chamber. Gaining a seat in Louisiana would put the Republicans only four votes short of the magic 60 they need to break Democratic filibusters.
In Louisiana, however, the issue has a different edge. At stake is the integrity of the state's much-maligned election process, which Mr. Jenkins has called into question. After all, this is the state where former Gov. Earl K. Long once boasted that "with the right commissioners, I can make the bells on those voting machines play 'Home, Sweet Home.' "
So Louisiana officials - even some who supported Jenkins - bristle at the idea that state's 1979 election laws are at fault.
"I think we need to do some fine-tuning of our election process," says Peppi Bruneau (R) of New Orleans, the second-ranking officer in the state House, "but in general, I think it's more of a problem of enforcement rather than putting more laws on the books."
But the Senate battle has more practical political implications for the Bayou State as well. The two political parties have wrought a delicate balance here - the Democrats controlling the legislature, the two US Senate seats, and most statewide elected posts, while the Republicans hold the governorship and a majority of the congressional delegation.
And although GOP strength has built steadily over the past two decades, traditionally populist Louisiana has not followed the rest of the Deep South headlong into the Republican camp. The election of Jenkins - darling of the Christian right and admirer and ally of Oliver North - would have tipped the precious balance.
Yet when the final unofficial count put Landrieu ahead back in November, Jenkins refused to concede. He went on statewide television to proclaim that the election had been stolen from him but declined to contest the election through the state courts. Instead, he asked the US Senate to intervene through its Rules Committee, saying he couldn't make his case within the tight deadlines imposed by the state's election code.
In the ensuing weeks, Jenkins's complaints were slowly made public: He charged vote buying, multiple voting, fraudulent voter registrations, illegal hauling of voters to the polls, campaign-finance violations, "phantom votes" on the voting machines, signatures that did not match the voting register, and malfeasance by election commissioners.
A bipartisan group of lawyers retained by the Rules Committee looked into the complaints. Their report, issued Tuesday, found insufficient evidence to support the final four charges on the list, but asked for more time to look at vote buying, multiple voting, and fraudulent registrations. That report will be presented to the committee today. On April 15, Jenkins and Landrieu are scheduled to appear before the panel, which is expected to vote two days later. The bipartisan lawyers have asked for another month to investigate.
Although some declared winners have been prevented from taking their seats because of challenges, only one senator has been unseated: an Iowa Republican was ousted in 1926 over his disputed election.