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THE IRAQ FACTOR

Opposition to War Buoys Democrats

Cynthia Williams, 91, cheers as a passing car honks in support of an antiwar protest in Carmel Highlands, Calif., on Monday. Exit polls yesterday showed 57 percent of voters opposing the Iraq war, the same number who disapproved of President Bush.
Cynthia Williams, 91, cheers as a passing car honks in support of an antiwar protest in Carmel Highlands, Calif., on Monday. Exit polls yesterday showed 57 percent of voters opposing the Iraq war, the same number who disapproved of President Bush. (By David Royal -- Associated Press)

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By Michael Grunwald
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 8, 2006

Democrats worried for months about the last-minute political bombshells Karl Rove might drop, but the October surprise of 2006 may have come from Iraq.

October was the U.S. military's deadliest month in Iraq in nearly two years, and as Democrats cruised to victory in the House last night, early returns and exit polls suggested that the unpopularity of the war -- along with the president who started it -- was a major factor. The election was much more than a referendum on the war, but bad news from Baghdad gave Democrats a powerful argument for change, and a metaphor for a "rubber-stamp Congress" that wants to "stay the course" in America as well as Iraq.

Last night, preliminary exit polls suggested that 57 percent of the electorate disapproved of the war, about the same amount that disapproved of President Bush's job performance. Only 34 percent believed the war has improved America's security, down from 46 percent in 2004. The more importance a voter attached to the war, the more likely he or she was to vote Democratic, and the antiwar vote was almost exclusively Democratic.

That's how Carol Shea-Porter, a little-known New Hampshire social worker who made her opposition to the war the centerpiece of her long-shot candidacy, upset Republican Rep. Jeb Bradley. Iraq also helped unseat GOP Reps. Anne M. Northup of Kentucky, Nancy L. Johnson of Connecticut, Charles Bass of New Hampshire, E. Clay Shaw Jr. of Florida and Melissa Hart of Pennsylvania. John Hall, a former pop star in the band Orleans, seemed poised last night to ride antiwar sentiment to victory over Rep. Sue W. Kelly (R-N.Y).

In the Senate, pro-war Republican Sens. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and Mike DeWine of Ohio were trounced, while antiwar Democrat Robert Menendez of New Jersey managed to hold his seat despite allegations of corruption. Passions inflamed by Iraq also contributed to unusually strong Democratic turnout in Virginia, where Reagan administration Pentagon official James Webb held a thin lead over GOP Sen. George Allen, and especially Maryland, where Democratic Rep. Ben Cardin appeared to be headed to the Senate despite a strong challenge from Lt. Gov. Michael Steele.

Iraq wasn't pure electoral poison. Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, a pro-war Democrat who lost to the antiwar Ned Lamont in the primary, won last night's rematch as an independent. And several apparent GOP losses -- such as Reps. Curt Weldon and Don Sherwood of Pennsylvania, as well as the candidates hoping to succeed disgraced former Reps. Robert W. Ney of Ohio and Mark Foley of Florida -- had more to do with scandal than war. Several pro-war Republicans appeared to have salvaged their seats, including Reps. Ron Lewis (Ky.), Thomas M. Reynolds (N.Y.) and Jean Schmidt (Ohio), who famously called antiwar Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.) a "coward" last year on the Senate floor.

It was also a night of mixed success for the "Fighting Dems," a group of Democratic candidates who were not only critics of the war but veterans of the war. Joe Sestak and Chris Carney easily defeated the scandal-plagued Weldon and Sherwood, and Tim Walz was running strongly in Minnesota. But Eric Massa of New York and Tammy Duckworth of Illinois were both defeated by pro-war candidates.

There was a lot for voters to think about this year: Hurricane Katrina, congressional corruption, federal spending, illegal immigration and a host of local issues. And with polls suggesting for the first time in years that voters preferred Democrats on war and national security, many Republicans tried to change the subject to local issues, character, the economy and immigration.

But to the extent Democrats managed to nationalize the election, Iraq has been the gateway. In Virginia, exit polls showed that 69 percent of the electorate considered Iraq "very important" or "extremely important," and that most of those voters favored Webb. Voters who cared less about Iraq tended to support Allen.

Iraq especially seemed to sour the environment for Republicans in the Northeast. For example, the only Senate Republican to oppose the war, Lincoln D. Chafee of Rhode Island, lost last night despite an impressive 62 percent approval rating; with 70 percent of his state opposing the war, it was a bad year to have an R after his name.

"I think regardless of the results, today is really a referendum on President Bush's handling of the war in Iraq," Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass) said, according to wire reports. "You're going to see a movement and a sweep in the outcome. The issue is to what extent."

"I think Iraq was obviously a factor in voters' consideration today," Republican strategist and former party leader Ed Gillespie told CNN. The outcome "is going to continue this debate between Republicans and Democrats over what is the best course" in the war, he said.

Bush and the Republicans used Iraq as a political cudgel in 2002 and 2004, portraying Democrats as too wishy-washy to stay the course, accusing them of coddling Saddam Hussein and emboldening terrorists. But in 2006, as more Americans lost confidence in the war and the country's direction, "stay the course" became a line of attack for Democrats. They portrayed their GOP opponents as defenders of the status quo, in Iraq and America, and themselves as the agents of change.

In more liberal districts, Democrats called for the troops to come home. In more conservative districts, they called for a plan for victory. But in just about every district, they attacked the administration's missteps in Iraq, and accused the GOP-controlled Congress of failing to provide meaningful oversight. And in recent months, as a host of retired generals, former Bush administration officials and current Republican leaders turned bearish on Iraq, some GOP candidates have tried to distance themselves from Bush and the war.

The most prominent Republican to try that strategy was Rep. Christopher Shays, a moderate from Connecticut who seemed likely to hold on to his seat last night. Still, analysts said that most Republicans overplayed their Iraq hand when things seemed to be going well, and took too long to recognize that the situation was deteriorating badly.

"For way too long, we believed our own talking points," one Republican operative said. "We actually believed that things were getting better."


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