Democrats win control of both houses of Congress for first time since 1994
Wednesday, November 8th 2006, 8:44 am
News On 6
WASHINGTON (AP) _ Democrats completed an improbable double-barreled election sweep of Congress on Wednesday, taking control of the Senate with a victory in Virginia as they padded their day-old majority in the House.
"The days of the do-nothing Congress are over," declared Democratic Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, in line to become majority leader, adding that Americans spoke "clearly and decisively in favor of Democrats leading this country in a new direction."
Jim Webb's victory over Sen. George Allen in Virginia assured Democrats of 51 seats when the Senate convenes in January. That marked a gain of six in midterm elections in which the war in Iraq and President Bush were major issues.
Earlier, State Sen. Jon Tester triumphed over Republican Sen. Conrad Burns in a long, late count in Montana.
With a handful of House races too close to call, Democrats had gained 28 seats, enough to regain the majority after 12 years of Republican rule and place Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California in line to become the first female speaker in history.
"It was a thumping," Bush conceded at the White House. "It's clear the Democrat Party had a good night."
Allen's campaign issued a statement noting that state officials are conducting a canvass of the votes cast in Tuesday's balloting.
"At the conclusion of those efforts, Senator George Allen plans to make a statement regarding the outcome," it said.
The Senate had teetered at 50 Democrats, 49 Republicans for most of Wednesday, with Virginia hanging in the balance. Webb's victory ended Republican hopes of eking out a 50-50 split, with Vice President Dick Cheney wielding tie-breaking authority.
The Associated Press contacted election officials in all 134 localities in Virginia where voting occurred, obtaining updated numbers Wednesday. About half the localities said they had completed their postelection canvassing and nearly all had counted outstanding absentees. Most were expected to be finished by Friday.
The new AP count showed Webb with 1,172,538 votes and Allen with 1,165,302, a difference of 7,236. Virginia has had two statewide vote recounts in modern history, but both resulted in vote changes of no more than a few hundred votes.
It had been clear for weeks leading up to the election that Democrats were strongly positioned to challenge Republicans for House control.
But Democrats began the year with fewer seats than at any time since Herbert Hoover occupied the White House. Even Reid, the party leader, mused aloud at one point that it might take a miracle to capture Senate control.
"From changing course in Iraq to raising the minimum wage to fixing the health care crisis to making this country energy independent, we're ready to get to work," he said in a statement late Wednesday.
Earlier, Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., in line to become the next minority leader, said: "In the Senate, the minority is never irrelevant unless it falls down into the very small numbers. I don't think, as a practical matter, it's going to make a whole lot of difference in the Senate, being at 49."
Webb's win capped a banner election year for Democrats, who benefited from the voters' desire to issue a searing rebuke of the status quo.
The president, who spoke of spending his political capital after his successful re-election two years ago, acknowledged, "As the head of the Republican Party, I share a large part of the responsibility."
With power on Capitol Hill tilting, Bush faced the reality of at least half of Congress in the opposition's hands for the final two years of his presidency. He announced that Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld would step down as Democrats have demanded.
The war in Iraq, scandals in Congress and declining support for Bush and Republicans on Capitol Hill defined the battle for House and Senate control, with the public embracing the Democrats' call for change to end a decade of one-party rule in Washington.
"This new Democratic majority has heard the voices of the American people," said Pelosi, the California Democrat all but certain to become the nation's first female House speaker, adding that Americans placed their trust in Democrats. "We will honor that trust. We will not disappoint."
With the GOP booted from power, lame-duck Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., announced he will not run for leader of House Republicans when Democrats take control in January.
"Obviously I wish my party had won," Hastert said in a statement that added he intends to return to the "full-time task" of representing his Illinois constituents.
In the Senate, Democrats soundly defeated Republicans in Ohio, Missouri, Rhode Island, and Pennsylvania. The battle for Senate power came down to Virginia and Montana _ and vote counts for those stretched into Wednesday.
By midday, Tester rode to victory over Burns, a three-term senator whose campaign was shadowed by a series of missteps and his ties to Jack Abramoff, the disgraced lobbyist at the center of an influence-peddling investigation.
"One hundred thousand miles and 15 hours later, here we did it," said Tester, an organic farmer with a flattop haircut who lost three fingers in a meat grinder.
In Virginia, Webb, a former Navy secretary under Ronald Reagan, had declared victory, and began to set a transition team in motion and calling himself senator-elect. Allen, a swaggering cowboy boot-wearing former Virginia governor who favors football metaphors, refused to concede and waited to make a move until after the completion of the county-by-county canvassing.
Overall, Republicans lost ground with swing voters such as Catholics, independents, Hispanics and suburbanites, according to exit polls conducted for the AP and the television networks. The GOP held its conservative base, but Democrats made inroads with moderates.
"We came to Washington to change government and government changed us," lamented Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., his eye on the next election in 2008. "We departed rather tragically from our conservative principles."
In the House, Democrats won 230 seats and led in two races, while Republicans won 196 seats and led in seven races. If current trends hold, Democrats would have a 232-203 majority.
Without losing any seats of their own, Democrats captured 28 GOP-held seats. The party won in every region of the country and hoped to strengthen their majority by besting Republican incumbents in races that were too close to call.
Putting another notch in the Democratic column on Wednesday, Pennsylvania Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick, a freshman, lost his re-election bid to Democrat Patrick Murphy, a decorated Iraq war veteran, by about 1,500 votes.
In Ohio, Rep. Deborah Pryce, the No. 4-ranking Republican in the House, struggled to fend off a fierce challenge from Democrat Mary Jo Kilroy in Columbus, and GOP Rep. Jean Schmidt, who famously suggested that a decorated Marine veteran of Vietnam named John Murtha was a coward, faced the possibility of defeat in her southern Ohio district. Both were leading but the final tallies were complicated by provisional and absentee ballots.
Republican incumbents also were slightly ahead in four other states but those margins were too tight to declare a winner. They were GOP Reps. Heather Wilson in New Mexico, Robin Hayes in North Carolina, Dave Reichart in Washington and Barbara Cubin in Wyoming.
In Connecticut, Democrat Joe Courtney sought to hang on to a minuscule 170-vote lead over Rep. Rob Simmons in a race that appeared headed for an automatic recount.
Elsewhere, Texas GOP Rep. Henry Bonilla was headed to a December runoff against Democrat Ciro Rodriguez because the congressman got only 48 percent of the vote in an eight-candidate field. He needed 50 percent to avoid a runoff.
Aside from gains in Congress, Democrats took 20 of 36 governors' races to give them a majority of top state jobs _ 28 _ for the first time in a dozen years. Arkansas, Colorado, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York and Ohio went into the Democratic column.
Democrats also gained a decisive edge in state legislatures, taking control of several and solidifying their hold on others. With the wins, Democrats will be in a better position to shape state policy agendas and will play a key role in drawing congressional districts.