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Democrats Take House

Bush voted yesterday morning in Crawford, Tex., then flew back to Washington for a dinner with friends and aides. The group included first lady Laura Bush, White House Chief of Staff Joshua B. Bolten, top strategist Karl Rove, counselor Dan Bartlett, Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman, former commerce secretary Donald L. Evans and Bush friend Brad Freeman. After dinner, they watched election results come in upstairs in the White House residence.

The history of midterm elections put Republicans on the defensive from the start of the campaigns. The sixth year of two-term presidencies often has produced sizable losses and shifts in power in the House or Senate for the party controlling the White House. That was true in 1958, 1974 and 1986.

Dissatisfaction with the war and the administration compounded GOP worries, turning the campaign into a referendum on the president and his Iraq policies.

Bush's ratings began to slump more than a year ago and attitudes hardened after the administration's sluggish response to Hurricane Katrina in August 2005. By May of this year, the president's approval rating had plunged to 33 percent in a Washington Post-ABC News poll. Bush has struggled since to break 40 percent, and in the Post-ABC final preelection survey, his approval rating was 40 percent among all Americans and 43 percent among registered voters.

Even those numbers, however, were low by historical standards on the eve of midterm elections. Presidents hovering in the mid-40s or below at that point have seen their parties suffer major setbacks. That was the case for Bill Clinton in 1994, Ronald Reagan in 1982, Lyndon B. Johnson in 1966, and Harry S. Truman in 1946 and 1950. Jimmy Carter had an approval rating of 49 percent in 1978 and Democrats lost 15 House seats that year -- precisely the number Democrats needed to gain yesterday to win the House.

At the beginning of September, Bush sought to shift the focus from Iraq to the campaign against terrorism. He used the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks to elevate his argument and throughout the campaign portrayed Democrats as weak on fighting terrorism. Most polls, however, showed the public far more focused on Iraq than on terrorism and until the very end expressed greater confidence in Democrats to deal with Iraq.

Unhappiness with the Republican-controlled Congress also contributed to the party's woes throughout most of the fall, with the 109th Congress recording some of the lowest approval ratings of any Congress in a decade.

Staff writer Lyndsey Layton, political researcher Zachary A. Goldfarb and staff researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.

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