WASHINGTON – With less than a half-percent point difference between Democratic challenger Jim Webb and Republican incumbent Sen. George Allen in Virginia's Senate race,Webb marshaled a transition team Wednesday.
Webb was ahead by fewer than 7,500 votes out of roughly 2.3 million votes cast,and a recount appears inevitable to some.
As it stands,the Senate that convenes in January will include 49 Republicans and 48 Democrats,with two independents expected to caucus with the Democrats. Webb's Virginia victory would give Democrats a one-seat majority.
Former governor Mark Warner,who was at Webb's side Tuesday night,said Wednesday that a recount will not change the election night's victor.
“Not only do we have great confidence in the Virginia process,never have we ever had a race change the winner from election night,” Warner said.
Nonetheless,Webb's campaign has dispatched a team of lawyers throughout the state to observe the remaining vote count,said Marc Elias,a member of the legal team.
“As members of the public,they are permitted to observe the count,” Elias said,”to see whether there are any changes made or concerns raised and to note that.”
Until a legal determination of votes known as a “canvass” is completed,results remain unofficial. Local electoral boards must complete their canvasses by the end of business Monday,but most expect to finish in the next two days.
Only provisional ballots remain to be counted,and there aren't enough of them to make any notable difference in the margin,said Barbara Cockrell,assistant secretary to the Virginia State Board of Elections.
Provisional ballots are issued to voters whose names do not appear on district registers,but who insist they are registered in that precinct. Those ballots are then re-evaluated by election officials the day after the election to verify that the provisional voter was qualified to vote.
“Now,I don't like to speculate,” Cockrell said,”but I would say we don't have a tremendous number of provisionals out there. … We're not seeing any significant change in the figures today.”
The state board will certify the results Nov. 27. Allen will have until Dec. 7 to demand a recount. If the candidates finish less than a half percentage point apart,state and local governments will pay for a recount if Allen wants one. Between a half and one percentage point,an “apparent loser” wanting a recount must pay for it.
At Allen's election night party in Richmond,the senator charged his audience to watch the remaining ballot counts like “hawks and eagles,” but the Allen campaign has remained tight-lipped about asking for a recount.
University of Virginia political analyst Larry Sabato agreed with Warner's summary.
“Virginia is really over,” he said. “Webb will be senator. We have looked carefully at it.”
Nor has a possible recount stopped Webb volunteers from dropping their former telephone greeting,”Jim Webb for Senate,” in favor of a new salutation: “Sen.-elect Jim Webb.”
The emotional turning point at the Webb election night party came about 11:45 p.m.,when American University student Matt Kent,20,jumped to his feet,waving his laptop and shouting,”Webb's up three [thousand],people!”
Kent,a volunteer who helps manage Webb's Facebook profile,had been monitoring poll results on CNN's Web site.
His words reversed the darkening mood at the Tysons Corner Sheraton,where guests had begun to make polite excuses as they backed out the door.
What followed was a late night for everyone,including election officials,many of whom snatched only three hours of sleep before heading back to work Wednesday to count the remaining ballots.
“Elections are like this,and I'm an election junkie,so that's OK,” Cockrell said. “I'm getting a little old to do it every day,but I can do it for a day or two.”
Meanwhile,Webb has appointed to his transition team three veteran Democrats: Rep. Owen Pickett, state Delegate Donald McEachin and Tom Lehner,onetime chief of staff to former Virginia senator Chuck Robb,whom Allen defeated in 2000.
Each will offer a “unique experience and knowledge of Virginia,” Webb said in a statement.
“I look forward to working with each of them as we move forward so that I may offer the best possible service I can to the people of the Commonwealth of Virginia,” he said.