Politics & Government

GOP shakeout begins as Democrats celebrate their wins

WASHINGTON — One day after Democratic gains in Congress, the party began planning its post-election agenda, while chastened Republicans started cleaning house.

Senate Democrats, muscled up by the addition of five seats in Tuesday's voting, brought their majority to at least 56 seats — including two independents — out of the chamber's 100. They could gain more, because the outcome of four other contests remained unsettled.

In the House of Representatives, Democrats gained at least 20 seats, and several other contests have yet to be called.

"The lesson and message from this election was that the American people want to see a change in direction," Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, told a news conference. "So we're very happy with the verdict last night."

There was little mirth on the Republican side of the aisle.

"It hurts too bad to laugh and I'm too big to cry," Republican National Committee Chairman Mike Duncan said.

The House Republican leadership began to unravel. Rep. Adam Putnam of Florida said he was giving up his post as the head of the House Republican Conference.

Speculation circulated that Minority Whip Roy Blunt of Missouri, the No. 2 House Republican, might not seek re-election to the leadership.

Republicans suffered a debacle Tuesday triggered by the failing economy and the fact that their hands were solely on the wheel for most of the last eight years. President Bush's sinking popularity didn't help, either.

Barack Obama brought in a wave of new voters and broadened the party's appeal and geography. Democrats won Republican Senate seats in the South and Mountain West.

"The wheels came off the Republican coalition," said John Green, the head of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron. "If you date it from Ronald Reagan, it's been rather long-lived. At some point, coalitions need to be refreshed."

The remaining electoral drama rested in four states where the margins in Senate contests were too narrow to declare a winner.

Democratic hopes for a 60-seat, filibuster-proof majority hung in the balance. It would allow them to dodge Republican efforts to block their agenda. But they'd have to run the table, and winning all four seems unlikely.

_ In Minnesota, Republican incumbent Norm Coleman was ahead by fewer than 500 votes over comedian-turned-politician Al Franken, which by state law triggered a recount.

"These aren't miscounted votes," said Rebecca Fisher, a spokeswoman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. "It's an optical scan. This isn't hanging chads or dimpled ballots. We are cautiously optimistic. We haven't been optimistic about many things in this cycle."

_ In Georgia, incumbent Republican Saxby Chambliss has 49.9 percent of the vote over his rival, Democrat Jim Martin. State law requires a runoff if no one gets 50 percent plus one vote.

_ In Alaska, Ted Stevens, who was convicted last month on felony corruption charges, was slightly ahead of Democratic Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich. Absentee ballots hadn't been counted yet.

_ Democrats are most optimistic about their chances in Oregon, where Republican Sen. Gordon Smith has the slimmest of leads over Jeff Merkley. Votes from Portland and other areas favorable to Democrats are still to be counted.

"I always thought 60 votes was a long stretch," said Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri. "If you look at the ways the Senate behaves, usually there are some Democrats who vote against their party and some Republicans who vote against their party. We'll find enough votes."

(Erika Bolstad contributed to this article.)


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