WASHINGTON - Angry American voters have handed control of the U.S. House of Representatives back to the Democrats for the first time in 12 years, punishing President George W. Bush and his Republicans over ethics scandals in Washington and a failing war in Iraq.
As a long night of political drama turned into morning, control of the Senate was up in the air with the Democrats having taken three of the six seats they needed for control.
Three races - in Missouri, Montana and Virginia - were too close to call, although Democrats had slight leads in all three, but there was the possibility that it could take days, with lawyers taking over for voters, to determine the ultimate control.
Katherine Harris lost her quest for the Senate on Tuesday after a gaffe-prone campaign that saw the former Florida election official shunned by her own party chieftains. (Peter Muhly/Reuters)
In the bitterly contested race in Virginia, pitting incumbent Republican George Allen against Democratic challenger Jim Webb a recount appeared to be a certainty, the two men separated by about 2,700 votes among 2.2 million cast.
The Democratic House victory means California’s Nancy Pelosi is in line to be Speaker of the House, the first female to hold that position, which is third in presidential succession.
“Tonight is a great victory for the American people,’’ Pelosi said. “Tonight, Americans voted for change and they voted for Democrats to take this country in a new direction. And that is exactly what we intend to do.’’
She said the thirst for a new direction was most apparent in an unpopular war which has cost nearly 3,000 American lives.
“Stay the course has not made our country safer, has not honoured our commitment to our troops and has not made the region more stable,’’ she said.
“We cannot continue down this catastrophic path. We say to the president, `Mr. President, we need a new direction in Iraq.’.”
Democrats needed 15 House seats to retake the chamber and it appeared they would win at least 22. Not a single Democrat incumbent in the House was defeated.
If Republicans hold the Senate, yesterday’s mid-term election would mark the first time in American history that one party took one U.S. chamber, but not the other, a recipe for legislative gridlock and a major test of whether Bush will become more conciliatory or begin to wield his veto pen.
When polls closed across the country, three-quarters of voters told exit-pollsters that they considered ethics a major issue, vying with the war as a top-of-mind issue.
It was no surprise then, that virtually every Republican caught up in scandal, be it political or domestic, was tossed out of office.
Only about four in 10 voters said they approved of Bush and the same number said they approved of the war.
Bush, who had turned into a lonely figure in the campaign’s final days, rallying the faithful mainly in small towns but being kept from competitive races, vowed victory for his party right to the bitter end.
But he could now face a Congress which will put pressure on him for some type of scheduled troop withdrawal from Iraq and could decide to go back and revisit early Bush decisions on the run-up to the war, wiretapping of American on citizens and allegations that prisoners in his war on terror had been tortured.
The Democrats in line for committee chairs are generally liberal, although many of the new members headed to Washington are moderate, even right-of-centre.
Bush and his vice-president, Dick Cheney, had vowed it would be “full speed ahead’’ in Iraq and the president still holds the power to prosecute the war as he sees fit, but he will also almost certainly face pressure from within his own skittish party to find a way out of the war.
Bush will address the country this afternoon.
“We always recognized this was going to be a difficult year,’’ said Ken Mehlman, chairperson of the Republican National Committee.
Yesterday’s mid-term vote featured an energized electorate which, according to early returns, turned out in numbers much higher than normal for an off-year election.
All 435 House of Representatives seats and 33 Senate posts were up for grabs.
Voters also were pronouncing on 205 ballot propositions in 37 states and electing a governor in 36 states.
Democrats had tried to demonize Pelosi as a San Francisco liberal during the campaign, with one, Indiana’s defeated Republican John Hostettler, warning voters she would put forward her “homosexual agenda.’’
Pelosi kept a relatively low profile during the campaign so as not to become a lightning rod for conservatives.
She told supporters in California last night that she thought her party’s strategy to recapture the House was working and she pleaded with party members in later time zones to get out and put the party over the top.
Pelosi has vowed to “drain the swamp’’ of Republican ethics within 100 hours of the new Congress being sworn in next January, promising moves to raise the minimum wage, raise ethical standards, lower drug prices, end subsidies for big oil companies, make student loans more affordable and implement all the recommendations of the Sept. 11 Commission.
Seats where Republicans were tainted by scandals ended in Democratic hands last night.
In Florida, the district where the disgraced Mark Foley remained on the ballot even after resigning in a gay Congressional page scandal, Democrat Timothy Mahoney took the seat from Foley’s replacement Joe Negron - although only narrowly, in a traditionally Republican seat.
Don Sherwood, a Republican who had admitted an extramarital affair and had paid off his mistress amidst allegations of abuse, lost to Democrat Chris Carney in Pennsylvania.
Curt Weldon, a Pennsylvania Republican first elected in 1986, lost in the wake of an FBI probe into whether he steered contracts to his daughter, and Zack Space, a Democrat, took an Ohio district which had been held by Bob Ney, who is headed to jail because of his involvement in the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal.
Republican John Sweeney, who also faced accusations of domestic abuse, was also rejected by voters last night in New York’s 20th district.
Among prominent Republican senators to fall last night were Rick Santorum, an outspoken social conservative, who had served two terms and was third in party leadership.
He was the target of a national Democratic effort and their candidate, moderate former state treasurer Bob Casey, never trailed in any pre-election polls.
Mike DeWine, the incumbent Republican in Ohio, a state wracked by GOP scandals, fell to Democrat Sherrod Brown.
Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democrat in Rhode Island toppled Lincoln Chafee, the Republican incumbent, an independent voice who often sided with Democrats and wouldn’t even vote for the president, but could not hold his seat in the heavily-Democratic state.
Democrats also held a key Senate seat in New Jersey, where Bob Menendez fought off a challenge from Republican Thomas Kean, the son of a former governor who had banked on pedigree and name recognition to provide a rare Republican upset.
Ben Cardin was originally reported to have held off a challenge from Lt.-Gov. Michael Steele in Maryland, but late returns were putting that victory in doubt and Steele had not conceded.
In the nation’s closest - and most bitter -Senate race, Republican incumbent George Allen and Democratic challenger Jim Webb, appeared headed to a recount, separated by about 6,000 votes with 2.5 million votes counted.
The FBI was also probing voting intimidation there.
Control of the Senate had come down to battles in Virginia, Tennessee, Missouri and Montana.
All except Montana, where polls closed late, were leaning Republican.
In Connecticut, longtime Democrat Joe Lieberman was re-elected as an independent even though only 26 per cent of Democrats in the state backed him.
Lieberman said he would caucus with the Democrats, but they had denied him the party’s nomination and turned to anti-war candidate Ned Lamont, a cable executive whose primary campaign was fuelled by left wing blogs.
In New York, Hillary Clinton easily won re-election over her poorly-funded and largely abandoned Republican challenger, freeing her for an expected bid for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008.
In the gubernatorial races, Democrat Eliot Spitzer won easily in New York, Canadian-born Jennifer Granholm held off a challenge from millionaire Dick DeVos in Michigan and in California, a rejuvenated Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger was expected to easily win re-election.
Massachusetts elected Deval Patrick, a Democrat, as its first black governor and only the second in U.S. history.
Bush wrapped up what will almost certainly be his last election campaign by voting at his home in Crawford, Tex., but not before he rallied his Republican base in 15 cities in 11 days.
Even as it became clear that this vote had become a referendum on him and his unpopular war, he went from rally to rally promising victory and telling supports to ignore the pundits and prognosticators.
This campaign, too, was a final bow for Karl Rove, the man Bush calls the “architect,’’ whose political acumen spooked Democrats and who strutted around in the campaign’s final days like he had no worries in the world and victory was assured.
Copyright © 2006 Toronto Star Newspapers Limited