All eyes turned to two key states of Virginia and Montana on Wednesday as control of the Senate hung in the balance in the US mid-term elections.
Democrats scored a massive victory in the Congressional elections by seizing control of the House of Representatives for the first time in 12 years.
Voters delivered a resounding rebuke of President George W. Bush and his Iraq policy by giving Democrats at least 28 extra seats in the House. The gains gave them control of the legislative body for the first time since the Republicans routed the Democrats during the 1994 mid-terms.
“Today, the American people voted for change, and they voted for the Democratic party to take them in a new direction,” said Nancy Pelosi, the leader of the House Democrats who is slated to become the first female speaker of the House of Representatives. “And that is exactly what we intend to do.”
The battle for the Senate remained tight. While Democrats claimed four of the six seats necessary to wrestle control of the Senate, results for Montana and Virginia were too close to call.
In Montana, with the votes of 99 percent of precincts counted, Democrat challenger Jon Tester had 48.9 per cent and Republican senator Conrad Burns 48.5 per cent – a difference of some 1,700 votes. In Virginia, Democrat James Webb led Republican Senator George Allen by about 7,000 votes out of 2.3 million cast.
The Democrats also snatched six governorships from Republicans, bringing their total to 26. While Ms Pelosi spoke of reaching across the aisle – something Mr Bush himself vowed when he came to office in 2001 – the size of the Democrat victory will likely increase pressure on Mr Bush to change course in Iraq.
A bipartisan commission led by James Baker, former secretary of state, is expected to soon release a report outlining recommendations for the US in Iraq.
The US has been dogged by spiralling violence and sectarian bloodletting in Iraq that has claimed the life of thousands of Iraqis and raised the US military death toll to more than 2,800. A CNN poll released just before the elections found that 61 per cent of the US public now opposes the war, while 56 per cent said the war had made the US less protected against terrorism.
The Democrat victory also underscored the inability of Karl Rove, the top political adviser to Mr Bush, to turn the tables for Mr Bush. The president lost some key Congressional allies in the elections, including Rick Santorum, the conservative Pennsylvania senator, and Jim Talent, the Missouri senator. The polls were dominated by voter dissatisfaction with the Iraq war, corruption scandals in Congress and concerns about the economy.
Early data suggested that turnout was exceptionally high for a mid-term election, easily exceeding the 35-40 per cent of previous cycles. While mid-term elections are generally focused on local issues, voters’ focus on national issues suggested that Democrats had succeeded in making the campaign a referendum on President George W. Bush.
Ms Pelosi said her early focus would be on increasing the federal minimum wage, expanding federal funding of stem cell research, rolling back subsidies to oil giants and improving ethics in the House.
A handful of long-serving liberal Democrats are set to become chairmen of powerful House committees. But several Democrats elected to the House on Tuesday were moderates and social conservatives, suggesting that any action in the House will depend on uniting competing factions of the party.
Voting was marred by an unusually high number of complaints about voting problems, particularly in states that have recently adopted electronic polling machines. In a number of counties, including in Ohio and Pennsylvania, judges ordered officials to extend the deadline to vote by an hour or more to accommodate those who had been turned away earlier in the day.
While many voters told pollsters that the war in Iraq was the top reason for their vote, that appeared not to be the case in Connecticut, where Joseph Lieberman, the three-term Democratic senator and former vice-presidential candidate, was re-elected. He ran as an independent after losing the Democratic primary to Ned Lamont, a wealthy businessman who made his opposition to the war – and Mr Lieberman’s support for it – a top issue in the race.
Winners and losers
An early sign of trouble for Republicans was the defeat of Anne Northup, a five-term Republican from Louisville. In the closing days of the race, Ms Northup, a tough campaigner in a seat that leans toward Democrats, had called for Donald Rumsfeld, secretary of defence, to resign.
The long-anticipated wave of Democratic support – much of it seen as an anti-Iraq war, anti-White House or anti-Congress vote – ousted a number of Republican House veterans, including Nancy Johnson of Connecticut, Curt Weldon and Don Sherwood of Pennsylvania, Charles Taylor of North Carolina and Clay Shaw of Florida.
In Rhode Island, Lincoln Chafee, the Senate’s most liberal Republican, lost a close race to Sheldon Whitehouse, his Democratic challenger. The Rhode Island seat had been widely seen as a toss-up after Mr Chafee defeated a conservative challenger in an August primary election.
In Indiana, Republican congressman John Hostettler lost to Brad Ellsworth, a Democratic sheriff, in a race long seen as a national indicator of voter mood. Mr Ellsworth was the first challenger of the evening widely reported to have unseated a member of Congress. Two other Indiana Republicans – Mike Sodrel and Chris Chocola – also went down to defeat.
At the outset, no Democratic seats had yet switched to Republican hands. In New Jersey, Democratic senator Bob Menendez fought back a challenge from Tom Kean Jr, Republican son of a popular former governor, to protect what has been seen as one of the Democratic party’s few vulnerable Senate seats.
Voter sentiment also returned Democrats to power in a number of state governors’ mansions.
In Ohio, a batch of Republican scandals helped Democratic congressman Ted Strickland defeat Ken Blackwell, the Republican secretary of state. In Massachusetts, Deval Patrick easily won election as the left-voting state’s first Democratic governor since 1991. Mr Patrick will also become the north-eastern state’s first black governor.
Eliot Spitzer’s long-expected victory in the New York governor’s race also puts that seat in Democratic hands for the first time since 1994. Mr Spitzer, the state attorney-general has been active in pursuit of white-collar crime on Wall Street.
And in Maryland, Martin O’Malley, Baltimore’s Democratic mayor, ousted Republican Robert Ehrlich as governor.
Analysts had long predicted that Democrats would enjoy gains in this year’s midterm election, in which all House seats and a third of Senate seats were up for grabs. Few of the seats were seen as competitive during the election cycle, but Democrats had long been tipped as well within reach of recapturing the 15 seats needed to retake the House for the first time since 1994, and the six seats to wrest the Senate from Republicans for the first time since 2002.