WASHINGTON (AP) _ Republicans and Democrats battled for control of the House Tuesday night in a costly coast-to-coast struggle. Three imperiled GOP incumbents turned back challenges in Kentucky, forcing Democrats to look elsewhere for gains.
All 435 House seats were on the ballot, but the two sides focused their attention on 40 or so highly competitive races likely to determine which party would hold power alongside a new president.
Those closely watched contests were scattered in all regions of the country, from New York and New Jersey to Florida along the Eastern seaboard, westward to Michigan and Missouri, Utah and Montana and states in between. California, the most populous state, had five competitive seats.
In the first of the hotly contested races to be settled, Republican Reps. Anne Northup, Ernest Fletcher and Ed Whitfield in Kentucky won new terms, overcoming costly Democratic challenges and benefiting from a strong statewide showing by George W. Bush. President Clinton campaigned for Northup's opponent last weekend as Democrats sought to take away her seat.
The GOP held onto one Florida open seat, but in a second, Republican Ric Keller and Democrat Linda Chapin were in a tight race with more than 90 percent of the precincts counted.
And in Oklahoma, Democrats led for seat being vacated by a Republican.
Dozens of incumbents in each party were coasting to new terms by lopsided margins. In Virginia's northern suburbs, Democratic Rep. Jim Moran and Republican Rep. Tom Davis were coasting to re-election with roughly two-thirds of the vote - in adjoining districts.
In polling place interviews during the day, a majority of voters said government is doing too many things better left to businesses and individuals. Voters who felt that way favored Republican candidates for the House. Those who thought government should do more to solve problems sided with Democrats.
The poll, conducted by Voter News Service, found that Republicans fared best among voters who listed taxes as the most important issue. Democrats led among voters who named Medicare, prescription drugs, the economy and jobs, education and Social Security.
Much of the action revolved around open seats, the 26 districts where Republican incumbents were not on the ballot and nine where Democrats were not. A small number of incumbents in each party faced strenuous challenges, as well.
As the polls closed on the costliest campaign in history, Democrats needed to pick up eight seats to dislodge the Republicans and regain the power they lost in the GOP landslide of 1994.
The expiring House includes 222 Republicans, 209 Democrats, two independents, one siding with each party, and two vacancies, also split between the parties. One Democrat. Rep. Jim Traficant, has said he will support a Republican for speaker.
The election marked the end of a campaign that made million-dollar House races commonplace. Candidates raised record amounts of money, none more than in California's 27th District, where GOP Rep. Jim Rogan and Democratic challenger Adam Schiff spent more than $9 million between them.
But it didn't stop there.
The political parties lavished tens of millions of dollars on television advertising in a few dozen targeted races. So, too, the special interests _ the unions, pharmaceutical companies and others that dropped millions more on commercials designed to sway the voters.
For the first time in years, Democrats were able to compete financially with the GOP. In district after district, they used their money to accuse Republicans of working side-by-side with the special interests to thwart a patients' bill of rights, prescription drugs for Medicare, campaign finance overhaul and other legislation while pushing a tax cut designed principally to benefit the wealthy.
Republicans disputed those Democratic assertions, stressing instead that under their congressional leadership the national debt was being paid down at long last, the Social Security trust fund was off-limits to routine federal spending programs and more money was being diverted to defense. In the final months of the congressional session, they repackaged their tax cuts into smaller, more appetizing portions and watched _ contentedly _ as President Clinton vetoed them anyway.
A Republican victory would mean a new term as speaker for Rep. J. Dennis Hastert of Illinois, already certain of re-election to an eighth term in the House.
The Democratic leader, Dick Gephardt of Missouri, was likewise headed for a new term, his 13th _ and carefully watching the national trend to see whether he would regain the gavel he handed over to the Republicans nearly six years ago.