WASHINGTON—Americans threw Republicans out of power in the U.S. House Tuesday, demanding a check on an unpopular president and a new course for an unpopular war.
Democrats picked up at least 15 House seats formerly held by Republicans, enough to seize control of the House for the first time since 1994 and to install Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., as the first woman Speaker of the House in U.S. history.
Democrats also gained seats in the Senate, but several close races remained toss-ups, and control of that half of Congress remained in doubt.
"We are on the brink of a great Democratic victory," Pelosi told cheering supporters at a Washington hotel shortly after 9 p.m. EST.
"Tonight is a total repudiation of the Bush administration," said Terry McAuliffe, a former chairman of the Democratic National Committee. "The Bush administration in America is over. It doesn't exist anymore. There is no Bush presidency."
President Bush watched the returns in the second-floor residence of the White House with political aide Karl Rove. Bush was not expected to speak out until Wednesday at 1 p.m. EST.
Democrats defeated Republican incumbents in bellwether House seats from Connecticut to Kentucky, as well as incumbent Republican senators in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island. They also captured governors' offices in such states as Maryland, Massachusetts, Ohio and New York.
In House races, Democrats ousted Republican Reps. Nancy Johnson in Connecticut; Clay Shaw in Florida; Chris Chocola, John Hostettler and Mike Sodrel in Indiana; Anne Northup in Kentucky; Charles Bass in New Hampshire; Charles Taylor in North Carolina; and Don Sherwood and Curt Weldon in Pennsylvania—and taking seats vacated by Republican Rep. Bob Ney in Ohio and by retiring Rep. Jim Kolbe in Arizona.
Democratic hopes of even larger gains were tempered by their failure to oust some other vulnerable Republicans, including Reps. Geoff Davis of Kentucky and Thelma Drake of Virginia.
In Senate races:
_In Rhode Island, Democratic challenger Sheldon Whitehouse was declared the winner over incumbent Republican Sen. Lincoln Chafee, who'd hoped his opposition to Bush and the Iraq war would save him from anti-war, anti-Bush fever.
_In Pennsylvania, incumbent Republican Sen. Rick Santorum, a one-time conservative icon who'd hoped to run for the presidency, conceded defeat to Democratic challenger Bob Casey Jr.
_In Ohio, Democratic U.S. Rep. Sherrod Brown ousted incumbent Republican Sen. Mike DeWine.
Democrats also held all of their most endangered Senate seats, as incumbent Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey fought off allegations of corruption and defeated Republican Tom Kean Jr., the son of a popular former governor; Democrat Rep. Ben Cardin defeated Republican Michael Steele in Maryland; and Democrat Amy Klobuchar breezed by Republican Rep. Mark Kennedy in Minnesota.
Early results also showed a razor's-edge election for a pivotal Senate seat in Virginia, where incumbent Republican Sen. George Allen fought both allegations of racism and a tough challenge from Democrat James Webb, who was Ronald Reagan's Navy secretary and based his campaign on opposing the war in Iraq.
One crosscurrent: Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut won re-election as a pro-war independent after losing renomination as a Democrat to an anti-war candidate. He'll caucus with the Democrats, so his win effectively leaves his seat in the Democratic column.
_All 435 seats in the U.S. House, where Democrats needed to gain 15 seats to take control for the first time since 1994.
_Thirty-three seats in the Senate, where Democrats needed to gain six to take control for the first time since 2002.
_Thirty-six governors' offices, where Republicans entered the election with a 22-14 edge, including control of the four biggest states, California, Florida, New York and Texas, plus Ohio.
In Massachusetts, Democrat Deval Patrick defeated Republican Kerry Healy to become only the second African-American elected governor in U.S. history. (The first was Doug Wilder of Virginia in 1989.)
In yet another striking gain, a Democrat won the governor's office in Ohio for the first time in 20 years. Democratic U.S. Rep. Ted Strickland defeated Republican Secretary of State Ken Blackwell to seize the governor's office being vacated by Republican Gov. Bob Taft.
The Ohio statehouse was a coveted prize in a state that could be as important to the 2008 presidential campaign as it was when it put Bush over the top for a second term in 2004. A Democrat hasn't been elected governor of Ohio since 1986.
Voting problems were reported at scattered sites around the country, as millions faced new voting machines bought to alleviate problems like the ones that turned the 2000 presidential election in Florida into a mess.
The Department of Justice had 850 poll watchers in 22 states watching for signs of discrimination or other efforts to interfere with voting.
In a footnote to the Bush presidency, Tuesday's elections defeated the two state secretaries of state who oversaw controversial election decisions that helped Bush: Blackwell, whose rulings benefited Bush in 2004, and former Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris, whose actions helped Bush in 2000.
Harris was defeated in a bid for a U.S. Senate seat from Florida.
Pelosi also watched the returns from Washington, where she awaited both the fate of her party and the birth of a grandchild. Pelosi would become the first female speaker of the House if Democrats win the House and second in line of succession to the presidency, behind Vice President Dick Cheney.
In many ways, Tuesday's voting was a referendum on Bush, an unpopular president leading an unpopular war.
He entered the final weekend of campaigning with an approval rating of 38 percent in the Gallup Poll, the lowest since Harry S. Truman had an approval rating of 36 percent in the fall of 1950. Truman's Democratic Party went on to lose the presidency two years later.
This year the Iraq war dominated the political landscape, despite Bush's early attempts to change the subject to the broader—and more politically popular—war on terror.
About six in 10 voters said Tuesday they didn't like the way Bush was doing his job. A similar percentage said they opposed the war, according to exit polls conducted by the television networks and the Associated Press.
Democrats didn't offer a clear alternative policy on Iraq, gambling that voters were sufficiently unhappy with the Republicans who started the war and have managed it since.
If Democrats ran against Bush this year, many Republicans ran away from him.
In one stark example that angered the White House on Monday, Bush flew to Florida this week to campaign specifically for Republican gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist—only to find that Crist had left town to campaign by himself somewhere else.
Rove ridiculed him, saying he doubted that Crist could find a better crowd than the one attracted by Bush.
Crist won on Tuesday.
Scandals also hurt Republicans: first, the tales of payoffs from disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, then the still-evolving story of House Republican leaders failing to stop former Republican Rep. Mark Foley of Florida from sending inappropriate messages to teenagers working in the House.
About three out of four voters said Tuesday that scandals did influence how they voted—and that the news pushed them toward the Democrats.
Republicans had braced for losses for months. It's normal for a president's party to lose seats in the sixth year of a two-term presidency.
Over the last 100 years, the president's party has lost an average of 32 seats in the House and five in the Senate in such sixth-year elections.
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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