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

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."

Another member of the GOP leadership, Rep. Adam H. Putnam (Fla.), resigned his post as chairman of the Republican conference in a midnight letter to colleagues. Other shake-ups in leadership could come in the days ahead, aides said.

Not all Democrats sailed to victory last night. A handful lost their seats, including two freshmen who were elected in Republican districts in 2006 but could not repeat those winning performances. Rep. Nick Lampson, a Democrat who won two years ago in the solid GOP territory of Texas's 22nd District, could not attract enough crossover support from Republican voters to fend off a challenge from Pete Olson. Rep. Nancy Boyda, a Democrat from Kansas who surprised both parties when she won in a heavily Republican district two years ago, lost to Republican challenger, State Treasurer Lynn Jenkins, by early morning.

African American and young voters who turned out in record numbers for Obama continued to vote for Democrats in down-ballot races, helping to create a string of upsets in many congressional contests.

"There was this tsunami throughout the country," said Rep. Christopher Shays, a 21-year House member from Connecticut and the last Republican in the New England delegation, who suffered defeat at the hands of Democrat Jim Himes. Himes posted such large margins in heavily African American Bridgeport that even his campaign staff was surprised by the returns.

In North Carolina's 8th District, Democrat Larry Kissell knocked off Republican Robin Hayes, who had held his seat for 10 years. In Virginia, Democrat and political novice Tom Perriello was hanging on to a razor-thin lead over incumbent Republican Virgil H. Goode Jr., and Rep. Thelma Drake was in danger of losing her Virginia Beach district.

Two embattled Democrats in Pennsylvania, Reps. John P. Murtha and Paul E. Kanjorski, survived their elections in large part because of Obama's sizable margins in the state, according to Ross K. Baker of Rutgers University. "They were both saved by Barack Obama," he said. "That's going to be a key to his legislative success -- those members who are going to attribute their strength to Obama."

In Minnesota, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R), who damaged her chances with controversial remarks saying Obama may be un-American, was leading her Democratic challenger early this morning with almost 20 percent of the results yet to be counted.

The Democratic governors of Illinois and Delaware will appoint replacements for Obama and vice president-elect Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, ensuring they remain in Democratic hands.

In Virginia, which voted Democratic in its first presidential race since 1964, Democrat Gerry Connolly, a former Fairfax County supervisor, picked up the seat of retiring Rep. Tom Davis (R).

Democrats built the foundation for their gains in the House in 2007 and early 2008, shoring up defenses of those who were elected in the anti-Bush environment of 2006 and in special elections this past year. Party leaders allowed many of these freshmen to introduce popular legislation, handing them accomplishments they could boast about back in their districts. In many cases, Democrats recruited candidates who matched the district, if not the national party, choosing men and women with conservative views on abortion and gun rights in hopes of neutralizing issues that Republicans had used successfully.

As the economy deteriorated throughout the year, Van Hollen said, Democratic candidates continued to gain traction as voters placed the blame on Bush.

Ultimately, 23 of the 35 Senate seats up for grabs came from Republican territory, and the only Democrat who faced electoral trouble, Sen. Mary Landrieu (La.), was reelected.

House and Senate Democrats also benefited from a financial edge that they honed from both online fundraising and leveraging their majority status. From January 2007 through mid-October, the Democratic congressional committees had raised a combined $256 million, almost $75 million more than their GOP counterparts, according to Federal Election Commission reports.

Staff researchers Madonna Lebling and Julie Tate contributed to this report.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company