Election '02: Senate control may not be decided Tuesday

With six cliffhangers and possible contested ballots, the balance could remain unclear.

If the ideal election night consists of making a big bowl of popcorn, watching the returns, and going to bed with a good idea of who won, this year may disappoint – again.

As with 2000, when Florida's vote-counting fiasco delayed the outcome of the presidential race for 36 days, several races next Tuesday may take days or weeks to resolve. Control of the US Senate, in particular, may hang in the balance until December.

"I don't think we're going to have all that much to say by 10 o'clock on election night," says Jennifer Duffy, who watches Senate races for the Cook Political Report.

In Louisiana, where a candidate must receive at least 50 percent of the vote to win, both the Senate race and one of the House races may well wind up in a Dec. 7 runoff. In South Dakota, a super-tight Senate race could be complicated by allegations of irregularities with absentee ballots on Indian reservations. And in Minnesota, a court challenge over the fate of absentee ballots cast for the late Paul Wellstone (D) could throw that Senate race into overtime.

If the House winds up tied – a less-likely scenario but still possible – control could boil down to a special election in Hawaii to fill the seat of the late Rep. Patsy Mink (D).

Each party also holds in its hip pocket at least one potential party-switcher: Rep. Ralph Hall of Texas, one of the most conservative Democrats, and Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R) of Rhode Island, who, when asked, doesn't rule out jumping to the Democrats. Congressman Hall has said he'd support the most conservative candidatefor Speaker of the House.

"This (election) is another close one," says pollster John Zogby. Currently, the Senate has a 50-49 Democratic majority, with an Independent who organizes with the Democrats. In the House, Republicans hold 223 seats and the Democrats have 208, plus an Independent who tends to vote with Democrats. Three seats are currently vacant.

Even before all the victors take their seats, some of the cliffhangers could have an impact during Congress's lame-duck session, which convenes Nov. 12. In Missouri, if Rep. James Talent (R) unseats Sen. Jean Carnahan (D) in their tight race, he'll be sworn in almost immediately. That would give Republicans the majority in the Senate, though it remains unclear if the committees would reorganize for that short period. (Senator Carnahan is serving as an appointee, after her husband was elected posthumously in 2000.)

In Minnesota, Gov. Jesse Ventura (I) says he may appoint an Independent to fill out the remaining two months of Senator Wellstone's term. If he does, the question is: With which party would he or she align?

In Alaska, if Sen. Frank Murkowski (R) wins the governorship, he'd take office Dec. 2 – likely before the lame-duck session has finished. State law requires he wait at least five days after his inauguration before appointing a Senate successor, so during that gap, the Republicans would be down a senator – another way they could temporarily lose a majority.

All of these scenarios would be mere curiosities if control of the Senate weren't at issue. But with just four days to go, analysts can imagine control hinging on one final race.

Political handicapper Charles Cook, who calls six Senate races pure tossups, estimates a 1 in 4 chance of having no net change on election day, with Sen. Mary Landrieu (D) of Louisiana failing to win an outright majority. That would mean control of the Senate isn't decided until the Dec. 7 runoff. As of now, Senator Landrieu is favored to win – but an extra 4 1/2 weeks of furious campaigning could stir up the pot.

In Minnesota, Democrats were in the State Supreme Court yesterday, challenging absentee ballots that were cast before Wellstone's death last Friday. A few counties are mailing replacement absentee ballots to people who request them. But most counties are requiring voters to show up in person, either at polling places or election offices, to recast their votes. Democrats argue this discrepancy violates voters' equal protection rights – and echoes Florida's mess two years ago.

The Minnesota Supreme Court may rule immediately – or wait until after Election Day, when other votes are tallied and it's known if absentees could decide the race. If the absentee ballots are decisive, the case could go to the US Supreme Court.

Of course, angry cries of "Florida 2000" could ring out across the country in tight races where election mechanics may cast doubt on results. There might even be a hanging chad or two – though not in Florida, which is now a punchcard-free zone. Many of the governors' races are tight: In 26 out of 36 races, the leading candidate is polling at less than 50 percent. And both parties have scooped up lawyers to watch polls around the country, just in case key races boil down to a few votes.

• Staff writer Liz Marlantes contributed to this report.

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