By William Branigin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 8, 2006 2:26 AM
Democrats captured a majority in the House of Representatives in midterm elections Tuesday, as voters delivered a rebuke to the Bush administration and the governing Republicans amid an increasingly unpopular war in Iraq and a rash of scandals tainting GOP incumbents in several states.
The Senate, however, remained up for grabs, with Democrats winning four of the six Republican seats they needed for a majority there. Control of the Senate thus appeared to hinge on key races in Virginia and Montana. In Virginia, where Republican Sen. George Allen trailed Democrat James Webb by fewer than 3,000 votes with almost all precincts reporting, no winner had been declared as of early Wednesday. And in Montana, challenger Jon Tester, the Democratic president of the state Senate, was leading in a race to unseat Republican Conrad Burns, a veteran senator tainted by the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal.
In Missouri, Republican incumbent James M. Talent conceded defeat early Wednesday to Democrat Claire McCaskill, the state auditor. "Our efforts fell a little bit short," he said. Minutes earlier, McCaskill had declared victory after opening a narrow lead with 85 percent of precincts reporting.
In Tennessee, the GOP held the seat being vacated by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, as Bob Corker, the Republican former mayor of Chattanooga, defeated Democratic Rep. Harold E. Ford Jr., who had hoped to become the first black senator elected from the South since Reconstruction.
"I think we will hold control of the Senate," Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman said on CNN.
Bush monitored the election results Tuesday night at the White House after voting in the morning in Crawford, Tex. He made no public comment as the returns came in. In the days leading up to the voting, he had repeatedly predicted Republican victories in both the House and Senate, saying GOP control of Congress was vital to assure victory in the war on terrorism.
The Democratic victory in the House marked a fundamental power shift in Washington, where Republicans have held the chamber for the past dozen years. It put Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) in position to take over next year as the first woman speaker of the House in U.S. history, and it posed a new challenge for President Bush during his final two years in the White House.
"Tonight is a great victory for the American people," Pelosi said in a late-night speech in Washington. "Today the American people voted for change, and they voted for Democrats to take our country in a new direction." She described the vote as a mandate "to restore stability and bipartisanship" in Washington and for "a new direction" in the war in Iraq.
"The American people voted to restore integrity and honesty in Washington, D.C., and the Democrats intend to lead the most honest, most open and most ethical Congress in history," Pelosi said. She added, "And nowhere did the American people make it more clear that we need a new direction than in the war in Iraq. 'Stay the course' has not made our country safer, has not honored our commitment to our troops and has not made the region more stable. We cannot continue down this catastrophic path." She called on the Bush administration to work with Democrats "to find a solution to the war in Iraq."
Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid of Nevada told supporters, "All across America tonight . . . there is in the air a wind of change."
With returns trickling in from a number of hotly contested races, Democrats claimed the minimum of 15 victories they needed in Republican-held districts en route to what they hoped would be a larger House majority.
Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean tonight predicted a total gain of "about 30 seats" in the House.
Democrats reached the 15-seat threshold by knocking off Republicans in three districts in Indiana, two districts in Florida, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and New York, and one each in Connecticut, Kentucky, North Carolina and Ohio.
Additional Democratic victories over GOP incumbents then began to come in from others states, including Texas, where the Republicans lost the Houston-area seat formerly held by Tom DeLay, the once-powerful House majority leader. DeLay resigned in June after being indicted on charges of conspiring to violate campaign finance laws. Republican Shelley Sekula-Gibbs, a dermatologist and member of the Houston City Council, ran as a write-in candidate but lost to Democrat Nicholas V. Lampson, a former congressman who lost his House seat after a controversial 2004 redistricting that DeLay helped engineer.
White House officials privately acknowledged that Democrats appeared almost certain to win significantly more seats than needed to gain control of the House for the first time since 1994 -- a result that would dramatically alter the balance of power in Washington for final two years of the Bush administration.
Soon after polls closed in the east, Democrats gained three of the six seats they needed for control of the Senate, knocking off Republican incumbents in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Rhode Island.
In Pennsylvania, Democratic challenger Bob Casey Jr. defeated Republican Sen. Rick Santorum in a closely watched race. In Ohio, Democratic Rep. Sherrod Brown ousted two-term incumbent Sen. Mike DeWine. In Rhode Island, Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democratic former state attorney general, defeated Sen. Lincoln D. Chafee, a Republican moderate.
Santorum, a staunch conservative who chairs the Senate Republican Conference, making him the party's third-ranking leader in the chamber, conceded to Casey tonight, congratulating him on running "an excellent campaign."
In one crucial Senate race that the Democrats needed to win to boost their chances of gaining a majority, incumbent Robert Menendez in New Jersey held off Republican Thomas H. Kean Jr., son of a former New Jersey governor.
Another incumbent, Joseph I. Lieberman, running as a third-party candidate in Connecticut, held onto his Senate seat, defeating Ned Lamont, who won the Democratic Party's nomination over Lieberman in the state's primary. Lieberman, who was the Democratic nominee for vice president in 2000, has said he plans to caucus with the Democrats.
In Maryland, television networks and the Associated Press projected Democratic Rep. Benjamin Cardin as the winner over Republican Lt. Gov. Michael Steele after a tough campaign for the seat vacated by retiring Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, a Democrat.
The first of the Republican House seats to fall into the Democratic column was in Indiana, where Rep. John N. Hostettler was beaten by challenger Brad Ellsworth. More Democratic pickups in the House came in Kentucky, where John Yarmuth toppled Republican incumbent Anne M. Northup, and Indiana, where Democrat Joe Donnelly took the seat of Republican Rep. Chris Chocola. In Connecticut, Democrat Chris Murphy, a 32-year-old state senator, knocked off veteran Republican Rep. Nancy L. Johnson.
In Florida, Republican Rep. E. Clay Shaw Jr., 67, a 25-year veteran of the House, lost his seat to Ron Klein, 49, the minority leader in the state Senate.
In North Carolina, Heath Shuler, a conservative Democrat and former Washington Redskins quarterback, defeated GOP Rep. Charles H. Taylor.
With Americans increasingly disenchanted with the situation in Iraq and President Bush saddled with low job-approval ratings, Democrats mounted their strongest challenge to Republican control of Congress in a dozen years. The voting was widely seen as a gauge of public sentiment on national issues, including the war and Bush's leadership.
Turnout was reported to be relatively heavy in some places, with lines forming soon after polls opened in Virginia, Maryland, Ohio and other states with competitive races.
Some of the longer waits were attributed to technical glitches with new electronic voting machines in several states. Balloting was delayed in dozens of precincts in Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, Pennsylvania and Colorado, forcing election officials to extend polling hours in some places. However, the computer problems and other delays did not appear to be widespread or politically motivated, election monitors said.
Polls closed at 6 p.m. EST in Indiana and Kentucky and at 7 p.m. or 8 p.m. EST in most eastern, southern and Midwestern states. Polls closed at 11 p.m. EST in California, Washington and Hawaii and midnight EST in Alaska.
At stake in Tuesday's elections were all 435 seats in the House of Representatives and 33 of the 100 seats in the Senate. In addition, voters in 36 states were electing governors.
The elections offered Democrats a chance to take control of Congress for the first time since they lost the House and Senate in a 1994 Republican landslide. The GOP has held the House ever since, and the Senate has been under Republican control since then, except for a 19-month period in 2001 and 2002 when a GOP senator quit the party to become an independent.
According to exit polling reported by CNN, national issues were much on voters' minds Tuesday, with corruption, terrorism, the economy and Iraq topping the list of concerns. Belying the bromide that all politics is local, 62 percent of those polled said national issues were the biggest factors in determining their choices, while 33 percent cited local issues.
Voters' emphasis on corruption and Iraq appeared to be good news for Democrats, given a slew of scandals that have dogged Republican lawmakers and the growing unpopularity of the war in Iraq. On the other hand, Bush and his fellow Republicans have touted economic gains and their commitment to the war on terrorism as reasons to stick with a GOP-controlled Congress.
In Indiana, Republican Sen. Richard Lugar cruised to reelection as expected against a Libertarian candidate, and in Vermont, Rep. Bernard Sanders, an avowed socialist running as an independent, easily won the Senate seat vacated by the retirement of James M. Jeffords, a former Republican who became an independent in 2001. The win by Sanders made him the first socialist to be elected to the Senate.
In West Virginia, Sen. Robert C. Byrd, a Democrat who turns 89 later this month and is the longest-serving current member of Congress, won reelection handily.
Also winning reelection to the Senate were Republican Olympia Snowe in Maine and Democrats Edward M. Kennedy in Massachusetts and Bill Nelson in Florida. Nelson defeated Rep. Katherine Harris, a Republican who, as Florida secretary of state, presided over the hotly contested election in the state that gave the presidency to Bush in 2000.
In Ohio, Democrat Ted Strickland defeated Republican J. Kenneth Blackwell in the race for governor, capitalizing on popular discontent over the scandal-plagued administration of outgoing Republican Gov. Bob Taft.
Among other winners in gubernatorial races were incumbent Democrats Phil Bredesen in Tennessee, Rod Blagojevich in Illinois and Ed Rendell in Pennsylvania, who beat Republican Lynn Swann, a former Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver. In Connecticut, Republican M. Jodi Rell won reelection. In Massachusetts, Democrat Deval Patrick captured the governorship, becoming the second African American to win an election for governor in U.S. history.
Opinion polls before the elections indicated that the House was within the Democrats' grasp, while control of the Senate depended on a handful of tossup races.
Among the most closely watches races were senatorial elections in Virginia, Maryland, Tennessee, Missouri, Montana, New Jersey, Ohio, Rhode Island and Pennsylvania. In Virginia, Allen was locked in a tight race with Webb, a novelist and former secretary of the Navy in the Reagan administration.
With almost all precincts reporting, Webb was slightly ahead, but the race was still too close to call.
Allen said the counting would continue Wednesday.
Going into the elections, Republicans held 230 seats in the House and the Democrats had 201. One was held by an independent who usually votes with the Democrats, and three were vacant.
According to a Washington Post analysis of competitive races, the Democrats appeared poised on the eve of the election to capture more than the needed 15 seats, with a gain of around 25 well within the realm of possibility. Republicans were virtually conceding 10 seats before ballots were even cast, and 30 other House seats -- all but one held by Republicans -- were considered tossups.
In the Senate, Democrats faced a tougher challenge, needing to gain six seats to achieve a majority. In the outgoing Congress, Republicans held 55 Senate seats, Democrats had 44 and one was occupied by an independent who typically sided with the Democrats.
Democrats were confident of taking at least three of the Republican Senate seats they needed, but they faced the daunting challenge of having to win in three more states out of four where the races were considered tossups: Virginia, Tennessee, Missouri and Montana.
The power of incumbency favored Republicans as voters went to the polls. Since 1996, incumbents have had a reelection rate of well over 90 percent. Because of such factors as the gerrymandering of congressional districts, incumbents in the House have enjoyed a reelection rate approaching 99 percent in some recent elections.
This year, however, at least 63 of the House races were considered competitive.
In addition to the congressional and gubernatorial races, 46 states were holding legislative elections to fill 6,181 seats -- 83 percent of the total state legislative seats nationwide. The four states not holding state legislative elections this year are Louisiana, Mississippi, New Jersey and Virginia.
Control of state legislatures is important because in nearly three-fourths of the states, legislative bodies have primary responsibility for drawing congressional district boundaries, a major factor in determining which party's candidates are sent to Washington to serve in the House. Going into Tuesday's balloting, 20 state legislatures were controlled by Republicans and 19 by Democrats, with 10 others split. One state, Nebraska, has nonpartisan elections for a unicameral legislature.
In 37 states, voters also faced a total of more than 200 ballot measures on issues ranging from property rights, same-sex marriage and the minimum wage to restrictions on abortion and smoking. Bans on same-sex marriage were on the ballot in eight states, including Virginia, and seven states were considering tobacco-related measures, such as prohibitions on smoking in enclosed public places. Minimum wage increases were before the voters in six states, abortion was on the ballot in three, and one state -- Missouri -- was considering a measure to legalize embryonic stem cell research.
Nasty campaigns marked by personal attacks and negative advertising were waged in many of the contests, and allegations of last-minute dirty tricks surfaced in some places. In Virginia, the State Board of Elections asked the FBI to investigate complaints that phony callers tried to intimidate voters or deceive them about the location of polling places. The Webb campaign blamed the GOP, which denied having anything to do with the calls.
Complaints about deceptive phone calls were also reported in New Mexico and Ohio.
Barrages of automated phone calls, called "robo-calls," also angered voters in many locations. In Connecticut, for example, Republicans launched a blizzard of robo-calls backing incumbent Rep. Christopher Shays in his battle for reelection against Democrat Diane Farrell. But the calls began with a cheery notation about Farrell, leading some voters to assume the Democrat had sponsored the calls.
In Bridgeport, Connecticut's largest city, Bill Moll, 80, said the volume of calls about Farrell "drove me nuts," prompting him to vote for Shays, Washington Post staff writer Michael Powell reported. Told that many of the calls were likely sponsored by national Republicans, Moll shrugged. "Then I voted for the wrong reason," he said.