WASHINGTON – Democrats rode a historic surge of enthusiasm to capture Senate and House seats across the nation Tuesday, 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 today, 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 Gov. Mark Warner easily won his Senate race against Republican Jim Gilmore, 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 of Kentucky fought off a stiff challenge from businessman Bruce Lunsford. Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., was narrowly leading his race, but it was unclear early Wednesday 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 late Tuesday night.
Democrats also expanded their control of the House by solidifying their dominance in the Northeast and making inroads in the South and West.
Ousting 22-year veteran Rep. Chris Shays in Connecticut gave Democrats every House seat from New England. Their victory in an open seat on New York’s Staten Island gave them control of all of New York City’s delegation in Washington for the first time in 35 years.
Democrats also rode the coattails of a decisive victory by Obama in New Mexico to win one House seat they haven’t controlled in four decades and another the GOP had held for 28 years. Both were left up for grabs by GOP retirements.
“Tonight, the American people have called for a new direction. They have called for change in America,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. Exit polls showed voters troubled by the battered economy and deeply dissatisfied with President Bush.
Democrats unseated eight Republican incumbents and captured nine open GOP seats, capitalizing on the unusually high 29 Republican departures. Republicans were only able to knock off three Democratic incumbents.
Along with the GOP presidential nominee, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, 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, D-Md., chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.