In Senate, Democratic Wins Include Va. and N.C.

Former New Hampshire governor and U.S. Senate candidate Jeanne Shaheen, center, greets people before voting at Madbury Town Hall.
Former New Hampshire governor and U.S. Senate candidate Jeanne Shaheen, center, greets people before voting at Madbury Town Hall. (By Darren Mccollester -- Getty Images)
By Dan Eggen, Paul Kane and Lyndsey Layton
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Democrats rode a historic surge of enthusiasm to capture Senate and House seats across the nation yesterday, dramatically widening their hold on Congress and heightening the chances of sweeping policy changes on the economy, energy and national security with President-elect Barack Obama.

By early this morning, Democrats had picked up five Senate seats without losing any of their own, including ones in Virginia and North Carolina that had been held by Republicans for decades. Democrats also took over 13 seats in the House -- including the last GOP seat in New England -- with 38 still undecided.

It remained unclear whether Democrats would reach their most optimistic goal of capturing 60 seats in the Senate, with four key races outstanding. But the GOP setbacks in the House could return Democrats to the majority level they held before the Republican "revolution" of 1994 and could give the Democratic Party its largest gains over two elections since the Great Depression.

In Virginia, former governor Mark R. Warner easily won his Senate race against Republican James S. Gilmore III, while Democratic state Sen. Kay Hagan unseated Sen. Elizabeth Dole in North Carolina. In other Democratic pickups, Jeanne Shaheen defeated Sen. John E. Sununu in New Hampshire; Tom Udall won an open seat in New Mexico; and his cousin, Mark Udall, took a seat in Colorado.

In one of the few bright spots for Republicans, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) fought off a stiff challenge from businessman Bruce Lunsford. Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) was narrowly leading his race, but it was unclear early this morning if he would maintain the 50 percent tally needed to avoid a runoff.

In Kentucky, McConnell summed up the feelings of the Republicans who survived the Democratic onslaught. "Winston Churchill once said that the most exhilarating feeling in life is to be shot at and missed," McConnell told supporters last night. "After the last few months, I think what he really meant to say is that there's nothing more exhausting. This election has been both."

In addition to Dole and Sununu, Gordon Smith of Oregon, Ted Stevens of Alaska and Norm Coleman of Minnesota were among the most vulnerable Republican incumbents in the Senate, and all of their races were too close to call at 2 a.m. Eastern time.

Along with the GOP presidential nominee, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), congressional Republicans struggled throughout the year to separate themselves from President Bush, who ranks as one of the most unpopular chief executives of the last century and who scrupulously avoided public rallies or fundraisers for GOP candidates. The Republican brand was also dragged down by an economic meltdown that led to a controversial $700 billion rescue plan that further endangered vulnerable incumbents.

"We've only picked up momentum as people have focused on the consequences of the Bush economy," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Democrats -- with 49 seats and two allied independents -- needed to pick up at least nine Republican seats to get to 60 votes, which would allow them to overcome filibusters that block legislation. Even without that number, Senate Democrats should be able to move some agenda items with the help of a few moderate Republicans to overcome blocking maneuvers.

A first test could come on Obama's pledge to roll back tax cuts for the top 5 percent of wage earners. Another priority could be a rewrite of the federal No Child Left Behind law, which needs to be reauthorized.

Rep. Tom Cole (Okla.), chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, vowed a "loyal but principled opposition" to the Obama administration and the Democratic majorities on Capitol Hill. He also predicted that the losses to House Republicans would not be as high as the 30 seats that some had feared. "I think, politically, our worst days are behind us, not ahead of us," he said. "Pruning the tree lets it grow back. That's what we have ahead of us."

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