WASHINGTON – Two years after re-electing President Bush and affirming Republican dominance of Washington, voters handed the president and his party a stinging rebuke Tuesday, giving Democrats control of the House for the first time in 12 years in a campaign overshadowed by deepening public disapproval of the Iraq war.
Democrats picked up at least 15 House seats formerly held by Republicans, enough to install Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., as the first female speaker of the House in U.S. history.
Democrats also gained seats in the Senate, but two close races – Virginia and Montana – remained toss-ups early today, and control of that half of Congress remained in doubt.
“Tonight is a great victory for the American people,” Pelosi told cheering supporters at a Washington hotel early today. “Today, the American people voted for change, and they voted for Democrats to take our country in a new direction. … We need a new direction in Iraq.”
“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. White House press secretary Tony Snow said the election returns “have not gone the way he would have liked.”
Bush planned to call Pelosi this morning, then hold a press conference today at 10 a.m. PST.
House Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, said the loss of power would force Republicans back to conservative basics such as balancing the federal budget.
“I’d like to congratulate House Democrats on a hard-fought campaign,” he said. “We are deeply disappointed in the outcome, but as Republicans we must recommit ourselves to the principles that brought us to the majority and renew our drive for smaller, more efficient, more accountable government.”
Democrats defeated Republican incumbents in bellwether House seats from Connecticut to Kentucky, as well as incumbent Republican senators in Ohio, Missouri, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island. They also captured governors’ offices in such states as Maryland, Massachusetts, Ohio and New York.
In House races, Democrats ousted both moderates and conservatives, including Reps. J.D. Hayworth in Arizona; 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.
Democratic hopes of even larger gains were tempered by their failure to oust some other vulnerable Republicans, including Reps. Geoff Davis of Kentucky, Deborah Pryce of Ohio 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.
•In Missouri, Democrat Claire McCaskill defeated incumbent Sen. Jim Talent in a campaign that focused on McCaskill’s support for a stem-cell research referendum – and Talent’s opposition to it.
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; and Democrat Amy Klobuchar breezed by Republican Rep. Mark Kennedy in Minnesota.
Control of the Senate came down to two states – Virginia and Montana.
In Virginia, the seat wasn’t likely to be decided until after a recount. With 99 percent of the vote counted, Democrat James Webb led Republican Sen. George Allen by fewer than 3,000 votes out of more than 2.2 million cast.
The contest in Montana was between Democrat Jon Tester and Republican Sen. Conrad Burns.
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.
At stake Tuesday:
•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 Bob Taft.
The Ohio race 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 will become the first female speaker of 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.