Election Night Journal

6 p.m. Two hours before the polls close here in New Jersey. Polling earlier this week had former Sen. Frank Lautenberg enjoying a comfortable lead over Republican Doug Forrester.

This is a change, of course. In the five weeks since he was appointed to replace Sen. Robert Torricelli on the ballot in a controversial move that seemed inconsistent with state law, Lautenberg has transformed the race. This has little to do with Lautenberg, a passable liberal who spent 18 decent years in the Senate, and everything to do with Torricelli.

Forrester had allegedly built up a double-digit lead in late August by consistently harping on Torricelli's questionable ethics and changes that he exchanged his legislative influence for cash and gifts. He had been able to duck the charges -- the Senate had avoided ruling on the issue -- until September when a memo surfaced from federal prosecutors saying they found that allegations made by a now-imprisoned businessman that he gave the senator cash and gifts "credible."

Torricelli abruptly quit the race and the state Democrats moved quickly to appoint Lautenberg (several Democratic heavyweights, including former Sen. Bill Bradley and US Rep. Robert Menendez, allegedly turned down the nod). The move ended up in front of the state Supreme Court, which ruled that the Democrats could replace Torricelli, even though state election law would seem to have prohibited the move.

The move is troubling and blatantly unfair, paving the way for trailing candidates to drop out in favor of candidates with better up sides.

And yet, I voted for Lautenberg today, too worried that the Republicans might gain control of all three branches of government to mince words. I believe it is important that we have a Democratic Senate to act as a check on the powers of the president -- whether it be on court appointees or the kind of noxious legislation that he has talked about since his run in 2000.

I still believe that the Democrats have ceded their moral authority, that most of them no longer speak for the people who most need a voice in government. But pragmatism won the day today. I can't say I'm too proud, but I think it was the right thing to do.

8 p.m. First results are good news for the Democrats, though it remains early. New Hampshire Gov. Jeanne Sheehan was ahead 53% to 45% over Republican Rep. John E. Sununu for a Senate seat. On the flip side, however, Democratic Sen. Max Cleland was being beat pretty badly -- 58 to 41 -- by Republican Rep. Saxby Chambliss in Georgia. It is early, of course, with only a handful of precincts in, but these are important races, tight races that could swing the Senate.

9 p.m. The Los Angeles Times is projecting Frank Lautenberg the winner here in New Jersey. I should be happy about it, but I find that difficult. As I said, I voted for Lautenberg with reservations, in an effort to create some kind of check on the Bush presidency. I can list the reasons: the USA PATRIOT Act, Bush's interest in drilling in the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge, his planned war with Iraq, further tax cuts for his corporate cronies.

And yet, the apparent Lautenberg victory does not ease my conscience. It is early -- the projections could be wrong -- and too many other Senate seats remain up in the air. What about Minnesota? Georgia? If either go Republican, then my vote will have had little meaning. But even if the Democrats end up making huge gains in both houses of Congress, I will be left with an emptiness in my gut and this question: Should I have had the guts to vote for a third-party candidate?

There were plenty of reasons to do so: the bankruptcy of the Democratic Party, the need to invigorate the electoral process, the Greens' opposition to the Iraq war.

But there also was an infuriating element to the Greens' message, best exemplified by their decision to run a candidate for Senate in Minnesota where the late Paul Wellstone was facing a tough re-election campaign.

Targeting Minnesota seemed illogical. Wellstone was that rarity, a progressive willing to fight for progressive principles. I didn't always agree with his votes -- he backed the first resolution giving Bush power to wage war against Al Qaeda (I thought it too broad and too willing to resort to the kind of violence I abhor) and supported suspect antiterror legislation. And sometimes he would opt for the pragmatic approach, agreeing to vote for legislation he otherwise would oppose to ensure that some part of his constituency was protected (I am thinking of his vote for the Clinton crime bill).

But I never felt he was abandoning me. While I live in New Jersey, I always considered him my senator. That's what made his death so sad.

9:52 p.m. It is looking like the Democrats will lose control of the Senate in January -- though the appointment of an independent to replace Paul Wellstone in Minnesota has tossed everything up in the air.

Chambliss has an 11-point lead in Georgia, which could turn out to be the key race. Right now, it is the only state in which a GOP candidate appears to have taken a seat held by a Democrat. It's still early, I keep telling myself.

10:21 p.m. It's beginning to look like the GOP is about to capture both houses of Congress. Both Georgia and Minnesota appear to be sliding into the Republican column, it may not matter what happens in Missouri.

11:46 p.m. I am still waiting for results from the Western states, hoping for something unexpected to occur. Not likely. The Democrats have lost their slim grip on the Senate, giving the GOP full control of the legislative process.

So what happened? This was an off-year election, one in which the president's party traditionally loses ground. The economy is tanking (the latest Labor Department report, issued just before the election, showed a loss of jobs) and corporate America has been reeling from a series of scandals. And yet, the GOP picks up seats.

The reason, from what I can see, is that the Democrats ran from this election. Rather than taking the economy -- and the Republicans -- head on, they tip-toed, allowing the Republicans to cast this year's vote as one on national security and Iraq. The leadership -- Tom Daschle in the Senate and Dick Gephardt in the House -- proved themselves inadequate to the task of leading.

It's time for new leaders and a new vision for the party. After years of drift, Democrats need to find their moorings. That means abandoning attempts to become the Republican Party Lite and making the party stand for something: labor rights, civil rights, peace and prosperity. Democrats should be vociferously supporting labor causes and acting as advocates for the folks for whom few in this society wish to speak -- working people, minorities, the poor, the disabled. They should be getting tough on corporate crime and cracking down on the corporate culture that puts profits

above people.

And it means finding fresh blood, candidates who are willing to commit to the larger vision -- candidates like the late Paul Wellstone.

In the meantime, we have our work cut out for us.

Hank Kalet is a poet and managing editor of the South Brunswick Post and the Cranbury Press in New Jersey. E-mail

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