Democrats take command of House, gain in Senate

Published November 8, 2006

In a stunning rebuke of President Bush and the Republican Congress, Democrats seized control of the U.S. House of Representatives Tuesday and gained seats in the Senate.

Democratic challengers led in many districts held by Republicans and were on track to win far more than the 15 seats needed to take control of the House. Some projections said the Democrats would pick up more than 30.

In the battle for the Senate, Democrats won GOP seats in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Rhode Island. But it appeared they would fall short of the six seats needed to take control. Republicans led in Missouri and Tennessee, while the Virginia and Montana races were too close to call at press time.

In some states, Democrats won by large margins, reflecting deep unhappiness with Congress and the Republican president. In the Pennsylvania Senate race, incumbent Rick Santorum was trounced by Democrat Robert Casey Jr. In Ohio, Sen. Mike DeWine was soundly defeated by Democrat Sherrod Brown.

"We are on the brink of a great Democratic victory," said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California, who is in line to become the first female Speaker of the House.

Declared Harry Reid, the Senate Democratic leader: "There is a wind of change out there."

Exit polls showed Democrats winning extraordinary support from groups that had voted Republican in recent elections: the middle class, white evangelicals and suburban women.

In Florida, Democrats picked up two Republican congressional seats. State Sen. Ron Klein defeated Rep. Clay Shaw, a Republican who held a South Florida seat for 26 years. Democrat Tim Mahoney won a close race with Republican Joe Negron for the seat formerly held by Rep. Mark Foley, who resigned six weeks ago after a sex scandal.

In the Sarasota district formerly held by Katherine Harris, Republican Vern Buchanan was in a close race with Democrat Christine Jennings.

Throughout the nation, Democrats gained ground in Republican territory. Democratic candidates won three Republican seats in Indiana, a state carried by GOP presidential candidates in every election since 1964. Incumbents Chris Chocola, John Hostettler and Mike Sodrel were all defeated.

"It's a pretty grim looking night," sighed Dick Armey, a former House Republican leader. "It's pretty tough to watch."

Republicans have controlled both houses of Congress since 1994, except for a period in 2001-2002 when Democrats controlled the Senate.

Tuesday's results marked a significant change of direction for the nation, but it appeared they would fall short of historic levels. In 1994, the most recent political sea change, 52 seats changed hands. In 1974, the first election after the Watergate scandal, 43 seats changed. In 1966, Democrats lost 47 seats because of unhappiness with President Johnson and the Vietnam War.

Republicans might have lost even more seats Tuesday if their party had not protected many incumbents during redistricting after the 2000 census.

Still, the results were a sharp blow to President Bush and the Republicans who have run Congress. Exit polls showed voters were in a gloomy mood and that they viewed the election as a referendum on national rather than local issues. Voters cited the war, corruption, the economy and terrorism as their top concerns.

Exit polls showed Democratic candidates won independent voters by a margin of almost 2-to-1 and led with middle-class voters, a group that had supported Republicans in recent elections.

Three-fourths of voters said corruption and scandal were important to their votes, and they were more likely to support Democratic candidates. Iraq was important for just two-thirds, and they, too, leaned toward supporting Democrats.

Most white evangelicals said corruption was very important in their vote and almost a third of them voted Democratic, according to a national exit poll of 11,798 voters conducted for the Associated Press and the television networks by Edison Media Research and Mitofsky International.

Four in 10 voters said they were voting to oppose Bush, almost twice the number who said they voted to back him.

During the campaign, Republican candidates tried to distance themselves from the president, while Democrats portrayed the Republicans as "rubber stamps" for him.

Scandals played a major role in the power shift. Several of the seats the Democrats were likely to win have been held by Republicans accused of ethical lapses or those who have resigned because of convictions or indictments.

In Pennsylvania, Democrats defeated Curt Weldon in the fallout from a federal corruption investigation, and Don Sherwood, who admitted to a long-term affair with a much younger woman who says he choked her.

In Texas, former Rep. Nick Lampson appeared likely to win the seat that was held by House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, who resigned amid charges of money laundering. Democrats also won the Ohio seat formerly held by Rep. Bob Ney, who pleaded guilty to conspiracy and corruption charges in the scandal involving lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

Information from the Associated Press was included in this report. Washington Bureau Chief Bill Adair can be reached at adair@sptimes.com or 202 463-0575.