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Four Senate contests still undecided

Simon and Murphy are Times staff writers.

Despite his conviction last month on corruption charges, Ted Stevens, the longest-serving Republican in the U.S. Senate, clung tenuously to his Alaska seat Wednesday as congressional Democrats exulted in election gains across the country.

Although the Democrats expanded their majorities in the House and the Senate, the outcome of a number of races could be in doubt for several weeks.

The Georgia Senate race appeared headed for a December runoff, and the Oregon Senate race was too close to call. In Minnesota, GOP Sen. Norm Coleman apparently eked out a victory over Democrat Al Franken, but a recount is required because the margin was less than 0.5%.

In the political drama unfolding in Alaska, Stevens -- in perhaps Tuesday’s biggest surprise -- narrowly led Democrat Mark Begich.

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If Stevens wins, he is likely to face an effort by his Senate colleagues to expel him. That has generated speculation that the state’s newest political star, Gov. Sarah Palin, this year’s Republican vice presidential nominee, would seek to succeed Stevens, who is 84 and has been in the Senate since 1968.

Democrats expanded their control in the 100-member Senate to at least 56 seats. They knocked off Republican Sens. Elizabeth Dole of North Carolina and John E. Sununu of New Hampshire, while losing no incumbents of their own. However, they appeared to be falling short of the 60 seats needed to overcome Republican-led filibusters.

In Minnesota, Coleman led Franken, who rose to fame as a performer and writer on “Saturday Night Live,” by 477 votes out of more than 2.46 million cast.” In Georgia, Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss was falling just short of the 50% needed to avoid a Dec. 2 runoff against Democrat Jim Martin.

In Oregon, Republican Sen. Gordon H. Smith held a slim lead over Democrat Jeff Merkley. The Oregonian newspaper, based on statistical analysis of the remaining 340,000 votes, projected Wednesday night that Merkley would be the eventual winner, but the Associated Press maintained that the race was too close to call.

Democrats were already contemplating changes.

Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Beverly Hills) is planning to challenge Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.) for the chairmanship of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, a major battleground for climate change legislation. Dingell, an auto industry ally, and Waxman have feuded over tougher regulation of vehicle emissions.

“Some of the most important challenges we face -- energy, climate change and healthcare -- are under the jurisdiction of the commerce committee,” Waxman said Wednesday.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) plans to meet with Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) this week to discuss Lieberman’s future.

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Lieberman, who returned to the Senate two years ago as an independent after losing the Democratic primary, caucuses with Democrats and has helped them hold a slim majority, but some in the party have called for him to be stripped of his chairmanship of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee because of his support -- including a speech at the Republican National Convention -- of GOP candidate John McCain.

House Democrats -- who now hold 235 of the chamber’s 435 seats -- picked up at least 19 seats, including an Alabama district that overwhelmingly voted for President Bush four years ago.

“Last night was a great night,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) said Wednesday. “The American people spoke out loudly and clearly that they wanted a new direction for America. And they voted in large numbers for change.”

At least four Democrats were ousted, including first-term Rep. Tim Mahoney of Florida, who was caught up in an adultery scandal.

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In California, a hard-fought race for a district east of Sacramento hung in the balance. GOP state Sen. Tom McClintock led Democrat Charlie Brown by 451 votes after more than 310,000 ballots had been counted.

An estimated 40,000 votes remained to be tallied in the district, currently represented by Republican John T. Doolittle, who decided to retire after coming under scrutiny for his ties to imprisoned GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff. The count could go on for weeks.

“We feel very, very good,” said Brown’s campaign manager, Todd Stenhouse. “I’ll give it to straight: We’re pretty confident that we will prevail.”

In the Alaska contest, Stevens led Begich by about 3,300 votes, but as many as 60,000 ballots remained uncounted. The outcome may not be known for 15 days, the time that state elections officials have to tally the results.

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The night before the election, Stevens went on television vowing to appeal his conviction on corruption charges stemming from his failure to report gifts and home-remodeling work from a powerful oil services company.

“Sometimes innocent men are found guilty,” he said.

Stevens’ campaign manager, Mike Tibbles, said Wednesday that if trends continued, it was “almost mathematically impossible” for his candidate to lose. But Begich, the mayor of Anchorage, refused to concede Wednesday, and said he was confident that late-counted ballots would move him ahead.

“I would just say to Sen. Stevens and his team: This race ain’t over yet. We’ve got a long haul,” he said.

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Stevens’ possible reelection has fueled speculation that if he resigns or is expelled, Palin would seek to succeed him. An election must be held to choose a successor within 60 to 90 days after a seat is vacated, but Alaska has conflicting laws over whether the governor can name a temporary replacement.

The possibility that Palin could run for Stevens’ seat, should he resign or be ousted, has not been ruled out by anyone in Alaska, though she has not expressed interest.

Larry Persily, Alaska’s former lobbyist in Washington, said Palin had enjoyed the national spotlight, and if there were an open Senate seat, “that’s a tough opportunity to pass up.”

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richard.simon@latimes.com

kim.murphy@latimes.com

Times staff writer Dan Morain contributed to this report.


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