WASHINGTON (AP) â€” Republicans will control the Senate by a slimmer margin in the new Congress, but ceded history to Democrats with the elections of first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton in New York and a dead man in Missouri. Five incumbents fell, four of them Republican.
Losing were Republicans John Ashcroft of Missouri, Rod Grams of Minnesota, William Roth of Delaware and Spencer Abraham, along with Charles Robb, the only endangered Democrat.
With winners declared in 33 of the 34 races at stake, Republicans will have at least 50 of the 100 senators. Still too close to call was the race in Washington state, where former Rep. Maria Cantwell spent part of her Internet fortune to challenge incumbent Sen. Slade Gorton.
Hundreds of thousands of absentee ballots in Washington remained to be counted Wednesday morning as Gorton and Cantwell remained virtually tied. Gorton and state officials said it could be days or weeks before the outcome is clear.
Republicans would maintain control in case of a 50-50 split, no matter who wins the White House. A Republican vice president, in his role as president of the Senate, would break a tie. Joseph Lieberman's re-election to a third term actually gave Democrats 49 seats, but he would have to resign if elected vice president, leaving Connecticut's Republican governor to name a GOP replacement.
Clinton's defeat of Republican Rep. Rick Lazio made her the first first lady elected to public office, but even her historic victory lacked the drama and poignancy of the Missouri race.
The late Gov. Mel Carnahan, killed three weeks ago in a plane crash, outpolled Ashcroft. Carnahan's widow, Jean, has agreed to accept a gubernatorial appointment to the seat.
``We remain heirs of a legacy, heirs of a dream,'' Mrs. Carnahan, 66, said, comparing her husband's unfinished work to that of Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King and Susan B. Anthony â€” the suffragette who never got to vote.
No one had ever posthumously won election to the Senate, although voters on at least three occasions sent deceased candidates to the House. Republicans have discussed whether they will go to court to challenge the Missouri outcome.
Carnahan and Democrats who knocked off Republicans in Delaware, Michigan and Minnesota all won by capturing the edge among moderate voters, exit polls showed. GOP gains in Virginia and Nevada came with strong support from white men and conservatives.
The slimmer Republican margin could assure more gridlock on key issues, since the GOP remains far short of the 60 votes needed to break a filibuster. This fall, GOP has a 54-46 edge.
``The Senate is never easy,'' said Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., himself re-elected. ``But when you get a new administration and a new Congress, it gives you sort of an opportunity to take a little time out and see what we can do together.''
Lott's counterpart, Democratic leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota, insisted his party's power ``was enhanced, without question. We know we're going to have more Democratic seats than before. It gives us more opportunity and more confidence to pass meaningful legislation.''
The narrow GOP edge also put new focus on two ailing, elderly Republicans in states with Democratic governors who would appoint any replacements.
South Carolina's Strom Thurmond, at 97 the oldest senator ever, was briefly hospitalized last month after passing out at a restaurant â€” but returned to preside over a Senate session less than two days later. North Carolina's Jesse Helms, 79, also went to the hospital in October with pneumonia that has kept him in his home state for nearly a month.
The Republicans' success was foreshadowed early Tuesday night when former Virginia Gov. George Allen defeated Robb.
The conservative Allen said Virginians voted ``for a government that trusts free people and free enterprise.''
Jubilant in her history-making moment, Clinton told a cheering crowd in New York that ``issues and ideals matter,'' with her husband, President Clinton, in his new supporting role, cheering from the stage.
Clinton had to overcome criticism that she was a carpetbagger and exit polls indeed indicated nearly half the voters were at least somewhat concerned that she had not previously lived in New York.
In New Jersey, political novice Jon Corzine, a Democrat, proved that money counts. The former chief executive of the Goldman Sachs investment firm spent a Senate campaign record of $60 million, mostly his own money, to fill a vacant Democratic seat.
Exit polls showed voters were evenly divided over Corzine's spending but only those expressing strong concern voted for Republican Rep. Bob Franks.
Roth's defeat means a change at the helm of the Senate's tax-writing committee. The 79-year-old senator, whose age was a factor, physically stumbled twice in public during the campaign.
Of the 40 percent of voters who said Roth's age would hinder his ability to serve effectively, nearly nine in 10 said they voted for Democratic Gov. Tom Carper, according to the exit interviews by Voter News Service, a consortium of The Associated Press and the television networks.
The Democratic challenger in Minnesota, Mark Dayton, spent more than $11 million of his own money to defeat Grams, who faced personal troubles.
``Minnesotans voted their preference today for leaders who will build bridges rather than moats,'' the victor said.
Abraham, serving his first term, lost to Democratic Rep. Debbie Stabenow.
In other key races:
â€” Florida Democrat Bill Nelson, the state's insurance commissioner, won the seat of retiring Republican Connie Mack. Nelson defeated GOP Rep. Bill McCollum, a manager during President Clinton's impeachment trial.
â€” Former Republican Rep. John Ensign won the Nevada seat being vacated by retiring Democratic Sen. Richard Bryan.
â€” Sen. Zell Miller, D-Ga., appointed to replace the late GOP Sen. Paul Coverdell, easily won the remaining four years of Coverdell's term.
Three committee chairmen won re-election: Agriculture Committee Chairman Richard Lugar of Indiana, Health and Education Committee Chairman James Jeffords of Vermont and Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch of Utah.
Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, first elected in 1962, won his seventh full term and Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., the second-longest serving senator ever, won his eighth.
Republican Sens. Mike DeWine of Ohio, Bill Frist of Tennessee, Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, Olympia Snowe of Maine and Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania also won.
Republican Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island was elected to his own six-year term a year after being appointed to replace his father John, who died while in office.
In Montana, two-term Republican Sen. Conrad Burns defeated rancher Brian Schweitzer, a Democrat.
Other Democratic incumbents re-elected included Kent Conrad of North Dakota, Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico, Dianne Feinstein of California, Daniel Akaka of Hawaii and Herb Kohl of Wisconsin. Republicans Craig Thomas of Wyoming and Jon Kyl of Arizona also won.
In Nebraska, former Democratic Gov. Ben Nelson defeated state attorney general Don Stenberg.