Democrats capture governorships in Ohio, Massachusetts, challenge GOP for control of Congress

Tuesday, November 7th 2006, 7:22 pm
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) Resurgent Democrats elected governors in Ohio and Massachusetts for the first time in more than a decade Tuesday and challenged Republicans for control of Congress in midterm elections shaped by an unpopular war in Iraq and scandal at home.

All 435 House seats were on the ballot along with 33 Senate races, elections that Democrats sought to make a referendum on the president's handling of the war, the economy and more.

In Ohio, Rep. Ted Strickland defeated Republican Ken Blackwell with ease to become the state's first Democratic governor in 16 years. Deval Patrick triumphed over Republican Kerry Healey in Massachusetts, and will become the state's first black chief executive.

Voters in Vermont made Rep. Bernie Sanders, an independent, the winner in a Senate race, succeeding retiring Sen. James Jeffords. Brooklyn-born with an accent to match, Sanders is an avowed Socialist who will side with Democrats when he is sworn into office in January.

Surveys of voters at their polling places nationwide suggested Democrats were winning the support of independents by a margin of almost 2-to-1, and middle-class voters were leaving Republicans behind.

About six in 10 voters said they disapproved of the way President Bush is handling his job, and roughly the same percentage opposed the war in Iraq. They were more inclined to vote for Democratic candidates than for Republicans.

In even larger numbers, about three-quarters of voters said scandals mattered to them in deciding how to vote, and they, too, were more likely to side with Democrats. The surveys were taken by The Associated Press and the networks.

History worked against the GOP, too. Since World War II, the party in control of the White House has lost an average 31 House seats and six Senate seats in the second midterm election of a president's tenure in office.

Several veteran senators coasted to new terms, including Republicans Richard Lugar in Indiana and Olympia Snowe in Vermont; and Democrats Robert C. Byrd in West Virginia; Edward M. Kennedy in Massachusetts and Bill Nelson in Florida, who thumped former secretary of state Katherine Harris to win a second term.

President Bush was at the White House, awaiting returns that would determine whether he would have to contend with divided government during his final two years in office.

Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, the House Democratic leader, was in Washington, waiting to learn whether her party would wrest control of the House from Republicans and put her in line to become the first woman speaker in U.S. history.

``I'd rather be us than them,'' said Rep. Rahm Emanuel, the chairman of the House Democratic committee, referring to Republicans, as the first votes were counted.

Voters also filled state legislative seats and decided hundreds of statewide ballot initiatives on issues ranging from proposed bans on gay marriage to increases in the minimum wage.

Equipment problems, long lines and other snafus delayed poll closings in scattered locations, and Illinois officials were swamped with calls from voters complaining that election workers did not know how to operate new electronic equipment.

But overall, the Justice Department said polling complaints were down slightly from 2004 by early afternoon.

Congressional Democrats, locked out of power for most of the past dozen years, needed gains of 15 seats in the House and six in the Senate to gain majorities that would let them restrain Bush's conservative agenda through the rest of his term.

The president campaigned energetically to prevent it, primarily by raising money for GOP candidates. He brought in $193 million at about 90 fundraisers; most of them party events in Washington or closed candidate receptions. Only at the last did he turn to traditional open campaign rallies, jetting to 15 cities in the final 11 days.

With Bush's approval ratings low and the Iraq war unpopular, Republicans conceded in advance that Democrats would gain at least some seats in Congress as well as in statehouses across the country.

Democrats campaigned on a platform of change, beginning at the top.

Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., was assured of re-election to his 11th term in Illinois. But his tenure as the longest serving Republican speaker in decades was at risk.

Of the 33 Senate races on the ballot, 17 were for seats occupied by Democrats and 15 by Republicans, with one held by an independent. But that masked the real story: In both houses, nearly all the competitive seats were in GOP hands and Democrats were on the offensive.

Republican Sens. Mike DeWine of Ohio, Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, Jim Talent of Missouri and Conrad Burns of Montana struggled all fall against difficult challenges. The Tennessee seat vacated by retiring Majority Leader Bill Frist was also hotly contested.

Democrats had hopes in Virginia, where Sen. George Allen looked for a second term. Republicans poured money into Maryland and Michigan in the campaign's closing days, hoping to spring upsets and offset expected losses elsewhere.

Inevitably, the stirrings of the next campaign were visible in this one. Sen. John McCain of Arizona traveled widely this fall, seeking a head start among Republicans looking at the 2008 presidential race. Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., who recently said he was considering a 2008 candidacy, did likewise.