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Obama Coattails Prevail in N.C. and Va. Races

College football is king in the South, and Republican electoral fortunes Tuesday appeared to split along major conference lines: The GOP was battered in the Atlantic Coast Conference strongholds of North Carolina and Virginia, but they prevented a Dixie disaster by holding their ground in key races in Southeastern Conference states, including Kentucky, Mississippi and Georgia.

On a night when both Virginia and North Carolina apparently voted for a Democratic presidential candidate for the first time in decades (Obama held a narrow lead in North Carolina at press time), the two states handed House and Senate Republicans some of their most significant defeats of the night.

In North Carolina, first-term Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R) lost a bitter contest to Democratic state Sen. Kay Hagan. In the closing days of the race, Dole aired ads linking Hagan — a former Sunday school teacher and an elder in the Presbyterian church — to a group called the Godless Americans Political Action Committee. The ads clearly did not help Dole much; the race was considered a dead heat in early October, but Hagan ultimately won 53 percent to 44 percent.

Republicans also lost an incumbent House Member, as high school teacher Larry Kissell (D) unseated five-term Rep. Robin Hayes (R) in the Tar Heel State’s Charlotte- area 8th district.

In Virginia, Republican Sen. John Warner retired after 30 years in the Senate, and former Gov. Mark Warner (D) beat out fellow former Gov. Jim Gilmore (R) to fill the seat. In the 109th Congress, the Old Dominion was represented by two Republican Senators. In the 111th, the commonwealth will send two Democratic Senators to Washington, Warner and Sen. Jim Webb, who unseated Sen. George Allen (R) in 2006.

Democrats also picked up at least two House seats in Virginia, as former foreign service officer Glenn Nye beat two-term Rep. Thelma Drake (R), and Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerry Connolly beat businessman Keith Fimian (R) in the race to replace Rep. Tom Davis (R), who is retiring after seven terms representing the Washington, D.C., suburbs.

At press time, Rep. Virgil Goode, who has represented the 5th district in the south-central area of the state since 1996, held a six-vote lead over Democratic challenger Tom Perriello with 100 percent of precincts reporting. The race may remain unresolved for weeks.

Republicans did hold one hotly contested seat in the state’s northern tip, as 14-term Rep. Frank Wolf carried about 60 percent of the vote in defeating challenger Judy Feder (D) in the 10th district.

While Democrats scored a few victories in other parts of the South — including picking up a House seat in Alabama — Republicans for the most part were able to avoid the major blood-letting that some were predicting a week ago.

In the SEC territories of Kentucky and Mississippi, two GOP Senators survived stiff challenges. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who appeared to be increasingly endangered in recent weeks, beat businessman Bruce Lunsford (D) by a comfortable margin, 53 percent to 47 percent. Mississippi Sen. Roger Wicker (R), appointed to fill the seat of Sen. Trent Lott when he resigned at the end of 2007, won his first full term by solidly defeating former Mississippi Gov. Ronnie Musgrove (D). The state’s senior Senator, Appropriations Committee ranking member Thad Cochran (R), was re-elected by a wide margin.

Republicans held the Bluegrass State House seat of retiring Rep. Ron Lewis, as state Sen. Brett Guthrie beat state Sen. David Boswell (D). But freshman Democratic Rep. John Yarmuth held off a challenge by former Rep. Anne Northup (R), whom he unseated in the state’s 3rd district in 2006.

In Georgia, first-term Sen. Saxby Chambliss at press time teetered on the brink of an outright re-election victory, but it was unclear whether his final vote total in the three-way race would squeak over the 50 percent bar required to avoid a December runoff with former state Rep. Jim Martin (D).

Meanwhile, Republicans failed to unseat either of the Peach State House Democrats who narrowly won their election in 2006. Reps. Jim Marshall and John Barrow cruised to easy victories Tuesday.

And the parties held serve in two contested Mississippi House races, as Democratic Rep. Travis Childers — who beat former Southaven Mayor Greg Davis (R) in a May special election — repeated his victory over Davis Tuesday night, and Gregg Harper, a former state GOP official, won the race to replace retiring Republican Rep. Chip Pickering.

As the election wound to a close, commentators warned that Republicans could be in deep trouble in Florida, but in the end they had a net loss of only one House seat in the Sunshine State. Four-term Rep. Ric Keller (R) lost his Orlando-based seat to Democratic challenger Alan Grayson, and GOP Rep. Tom Feeney (R), who was tainted by his association with disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, lost his seat to former state Rep. Suzanne Kosmas (D).

But Republican Tom Rooney unseated scandal-plagued freshman Tim Mahoney (D) in the state’s 16th district, and three endangered Cuban-American GOP incumbents — Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and brothers Lincoln and Mario Diaz-Balart — all held on to their seats Tuesday night. Freshman Republican Rep. Vern Buchanan won re-election easily, and state Sen. Bill Posey comfortably defeated Democrat Steve Blythe in the contest to replace retiring GOP Rep. Dave Weldon.

Republicans managed to pick up one House seat in Louisiana, as state Sen. Bill Cassidy unseated Democratic Rep. Don Cazayoux, who had won a special election earlier this year after 11-term GOP Rep. Richard Baker resigned.

But Sen. Mary Landrieu, the only endangered Democrat in the Senate this year, managed to hold off a challenge from former state Treasurer John Kennedy (R), and indicted Rep. William Jefferson, whose corruption trial is scheduled to being Dec. 4, won a Democratic runoff that will send him to a general election contest on Dec. 6 against New Orleans lawyer Anh Cao, a heavy underdog.

Dec. 6 will also feature a contested general election battle to replace retiring GOP Rep. Jim McCrery, pitting Republican physician John Fleming against Democrat Paul Carmouche, a parish district attorney.

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