Democratic Hopes Rest on 2 Tight Races

Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) concedes his race to Democrat Robert P. Casey Jr. as Santorum's wife, Karen, comforts their daughter Sarah Maria. Older daughter Elizabeth is at right.
Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) concedes his race to Democrat Robert P. Casey Jr. as Santorum's wife, Karen, comforts their daughter Sarah Maria. Older daughter Elizabeth is at right. (By Jeff Swensen -- Getty Images)
By Charles Babington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 8, 2006

Democrats claimed victory in four crucial Senate races early today and held small leads in two others that would give their party the majority -- and control of both congressional chambers.

The Senate majority will turn on razor-thin races in Virginia and Montana, where recounts or legal challenges could delay the final outcome for days. Democrats moved within striking distance by ousting Republicans in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Missouri.

Republicans, facing voter hostility toward the Iraq war and the Bush administration, had hoped that the worst outcome would be a 50-to-50 Senate, allowing Vice President Cheney to break tie votes. With such a narrow margin, Senate Republicans probably would face difficult battles with the first Democratic-controlled House in a dozen years.

In every section of the country, Democrats attacked Republican incumbents for their links to President Bush, whose handling of Iraq was deeply unpopular with millions of voters. The war, coupled with Republican scandals, proved politically lethal to at least three GOP senators, including the party's third-ranking senator, Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania. A sharp-tongued conservative and Bush loyalist, Santorum fell to Democrat Robert P. Casey Jr., the state treasurer and son of a popular former governor.

Another two-term Republican, Mike DeWine of Ohio, was hurt by events largely beyond his control, namely a string of scandals involving Ohio Republicans. Rep. Sherrod Brown (D), who touted his vote against the Iraq invasion, successfully hammered DeWine on his ties to the administration.

In heavily Democratic Rhode Island, Sen. Lincoln D. Chafee (R) stressed his independence from Bush and attacked the record of Democratic nominee Sheldon Whitehouse, a former state attorney general. But even his family's famous name could not save Chafee this time.

Missouri's Senate race had been close for weeks, with Democratic challenger Claire McCaskill attacking first-term Sen. James M. Talent's ties to Bush. McCaskill, the state auditor, came out on top after campaigning feverishly in Missouri's rural areas and small towns, where Democrats have faltered in past elections.

Republican hopes of grabbing Democratic seats in Maryland and New Jersey faltered, as spirited and well-funded campaigns appeared to fall short in states that traditionally are not friendly GOP turf. But Republicans won a tough contest in Tennessee.

And three-term Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (Conn.), who lost the Democratic nomination to antiwar candidate Ned Lamont in August, was elected as an independent. He will caucus with the Democrats.

Democrats needed six new seats to take over the Senate, where the GOP's 55 to 45 advantage was built largely on victories in the South two years ago. This year, many of the toughest contests were in the Northeast and in heartland areas such as Ohio and Missouri.

The Democratic strategy of criticizing Bush's war strategy -- without necessarily offering an alternative -- was effective, according to nationwide surveys of voters exiting polling places. Clear majorities of respondents said the Iraq war was important or extremely important to them, and most of them backed Democratic candidates.

The exit polls also suggested that public corruption may have played a bigger role in the election than many strategists expected. That helped Democrats in a year when scandals involving lobbyist Jack Abramoff and former GOP representatives Tom DeLay (Tex.) and Mark Foley (Fla.) made headlines for weeks.

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