Election 2008 not over, Senate hangs in balance

While President-elect Obama has been moving along fairly smoothly with his transition into the White House, the question still remains of whether he’ll have a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate or if Republicans will be able to maintain some shred of power.

First and foremost, there is much ado about the race in Gov. Sarah Palin’s backyard with disgraced GOP Senator Ted Stevens clinging to life in his bid for reelection. His Democratic challenger, Mark Begich, now leads slightly with around 40,000 more ballots to count.

The Anchorage Daily News reports:

Mark Begich made a dramatic comeback Wednesday to overtake 40-year incumbent Ted Stevens for the lead in Alaska’s U.S. Senate race.

Begich, who was losing after election night, now leads Stevens by 814 votes — 132,196 to 131,382 — with the state still to count roughly 40,000 more ballots over the next week.

The state Division of Elections tallied about 60,000 absentee, early and questioned ballots from around the state on Wednesday. The ballots broke heavily in the Democrat’s favor, erasing the 3,000-vote lead the Republican Stevens held after election night Nov. 4.

Stevens is trying to become the first person ever elected to the U.S. Senate after a being found guilty of felony crimes. A Washington, D.C., jury found him guilty a week before the election of lying about gifts on his financial disclosure forms.

The state still needs to count at least 15,000 questioned ballots and an estimated 25,000 absentees. With all the absentee votes coming in, this will be one of the biggest turnouts, if not the biggest in terms of ballots cast, the state has ever seen. That’s despite questions in the media and on blogs about why turnout appeared low on Election Day.

Most regional elections headquarters will count their remaining ballots on Friday. But the most populous region, based in Anchorage, won’t count its ballots until either Monday or Wednesday, state elections chief Gail Fenumiai said.

Speculation looms since if Stevens prevails, he’ll most likely be removed from office leaving Gov. Sarah Palin to name a replacement. Further speculation says she could, theoretically, name herself as replacement though I personally doubt that will happen.

Next, back here in the lower 48, there is a mean fight brewing in the state of Minnesota where Republican Norm Coleman was challenged by Democratic candidate Al Franken. The Washington Post reports:

And you thought Florida 2000 was close.

One of the most closely-watched Senate races in memory is set to begin its next chapter — an exhaustive, hand-by-hand recount of nearly 2.9 million ballots cast in Minnesota on Election Day.

Sen. Norm Coleman, the one-term incumbent Republican, has a 209-vote lead over his Democratic challenger Al Franken, a former comedian, well within the half-of-one-percent margin to trigger an automatic recount.

The race has already been deemed the most expensive congressional contest in the country, according to the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics. (Coleman raised $19 million and Franken about $17 million, Federal Election Commission reports show.)

Coleman has claimed victory and urged Franken to cancel the recount; Franken refused, citing alleged voting irregularities at some polling places in Minneapolis. He noted “a recount could change the outcome significantly,” according to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.

The hand-by-hand recount is expected to stretch into at least mid-December, Minnesota’s secretary of state announced. Daily updates on the recount goings-on can be found on a soon-to-be-constructed government Web site. A politically-diverse panel has been appointed to a state canvassing board to see that the recount goes smoothly.

But both campaigns are taking no chances, with Franken’s camp suing for access to data on voters who had their absentee ballots rejected, The Associated Press reports, and both teams ushering in lawyers and donors to help sway the vote their way.

Potentially, the most contentious part of the entire process will be the certification of “challenged” ballots, in which the canvassing board will have to determine a voter’s intent. (Minnesota’s 18-page 2008 Recount Guide (pdf) notes that out-of-place marks made on ballots should be counted if ther are “close enough to a name or line to determine voter intent.”)

If a 2006 recount practice run in Minnesota is any indication, a hand recount could alter the numbers substantially. In that race, auditors reviewed votes in about 5 percent of the state’s 4,123 precincts. Among 94,073 votes cast in the U.S. Senate race in those precincts, the audit found 53 discrepancies, an error rate of .00056 percent.

Applying those same totals to the 2,885,502 votes cast in this year’s race and you get a potential error total of roughly 1,626 votes.

Minnesota is looking very close and could still go either way despite Coleman’s slight lead.

Finally, GOP incumbent Saxby Chambliss of Georgia will be engaged in a runoff election which his Democratic challenger Jim Martin. The New York Times reports:

DECATUR, Ga. — In a brightly lighted storefront in this Atlanta suburb, volunteers have been busy calling people who had donated their time for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. “I know we got Obama elected,” Alexandra Songer, 20, told one voter with a practiced air. “But half our work is yet to be done.”

Ms. Songer was trying to build support for Jim Martin, the Democratic challenger who forced Senator Saxby Chambliss, the Republican incumbent, into a Dec. 2 runoff. That contest may have difficulty drawing voters, but it has already attracted national attention as the final battle of an intense election season, widely framed as the first test of Mr. Obama’s coattails.

The candidates have hastened to make the race a referendum on the president-elect. Mr. Martin has said he will support Mr. Obama’s agenda, while Mr. Chambliss’s supporters have presented him as a firewall against unchecked liberal power in the Senate, where Republicans are trying to prevent Democrats from winning a filibuster-proof 60-vote majority.

But given that voter turnout is the deciding factor in runoff elections, the race is perhaps more accurately a test of the vaunted political infrastructure — the new Democratic voters, the precinct captains, the volunteers — that the Obama campaign has left behind in hard-fought places like Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia, and how well that organization will work when the name Obama is no longer on the ballot.

“The Democrats in Georgia have kind of rolled over and played dead for the last few years,” said Deloris Bryant-Booker, a retired educator who was making calls for Mr. Martin on Tuesday night at the storefront, which seemed full of people who had not quite come to grips with the fact that the general election was over. “We really, really think that it’s important for the Democratic Party to keep the organization together that developed for the Obama campaign.”

Ms. Bryant-Booker said the volunteer team she had joined for the Obama campaign, which covered several precincts in DeKalb County, had already decided to work on behalf of Mr. Martin. The Martin campaign is also using some of the same paid staff members that had worked for the Democrats’ coordinated campaign in Georgia, which supported all of the party’s candidates in the state, and is using 25 of the coordinated campaign’s field offices. The Chambliss campaign plans to open 10 offices and use the existing Republican Party offices in each county.

The national Democratic Party has spent $800,000 for a week of television advertisements, and local volunteers are hoping that Mr. Obama himself will make a campaign appearance, though nothing has been scheduled.

But whether such a presence will increase turnout at the polls is another question. “They’re willing to support him,” Carol Jordan, an Obama-turned-Martin volunteer seated next to her 7-year-old daughter, said of the people she was calling. “There’s only a few people who’ve mentioned they need to get a little bit more info about Martin.”

Despite the enthusiasm at the storefront, Mr. Martin, a former state legislator and onetime head of the Georgia Department of Human Resources, is starting off at a disadvantage. In the general election, Mr. Chambliss, a former House member elected to the Senate in 2002, beat Mr. Martin by three percentage points (a Libertarian candidate, Allen Buckley, won 3.4 percent of the vote). And Georgia is still a red state: Senator John McCain beat Mr. Obama in Georgia by more than five percentage points.

On Thursday, Mr. McCain appeared at a rally for Mr. Chambliss. Mike Huckabee, former governor of Arkansas, will campaign for him Sunday, and Mr. Chambliss has reached out to Gov. Sarah Palin, who remains popular with the Republican base that Mr. Chambliss needs to mobilize. “I’m asking you to go into battle one more time,” Mr. McCain told a ballroom full of supporters in Atlanta. “There’s a lot at stake here. The eyes of the country and the world will be on Georgia on Dec. 2.”

Georgia is the only one of the three states in question which requires a runoff based on state law that the winner must receive at least 50% of the vote. The Georgia runoff vote happens on December 2nd. Obviously supporters of Democrat Jim Martin are trying to capitalized on the ground organization left over from the Obama campaign.

Alaska is still counting votes and Minnesota will soon be engaged in a recount before results are certified. It will still be several weeks before we know for sure.

Bloomberg Television reports on the unfinished Senate races and the balance of power:

As a side story, President-elect Obama resigned his position as an Illinois Senator, CBS News video report:

No change in power here as the state of Illinois will name a replacement, most likely another Democrat to take Obama’s seat.

We’ll be watching all these races closely since it will determine whether or not the newly elected President will have any opposition in congress.