WASHINGTON — Democrats captured four of the six Republican-held seats they needed to take control of the Senate, winning critical contests in Ohio, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania and Missouri, and inched closer Wednesday to erasing the GOP's majority.
Seizing on voter discontent with President Bush and the war in Iraq, Democrats mounted challenges for two remaining Republican-held seats in Virginia and Montana, and were ahead in both. But in Virginia, Democratic challenger James Webb's lead over Republican incumbent George Allen was razor thin and a recount was likely.
Republicans and Democrats both dispatched lawyers to Virginia to tally uncounted absentee ballots Wednesday, as well as canvass votes counted on Election Day.
GOP incumbent Sen. Jim Talent in Missouri conceded defeat early Wednesday to Democrat Claire McCaskill, the state auditor. "It was not for lack of effort, the headwind was just very, very strong this year," Talent told subdued supporters.
In Pennsylvania, Democrat Bob Casey, son of a popular former governor, soundly defeated incumbent Sen. Rick Santorum, a conservative and third-ranking member of the Senate GOP leadership. Democratic Rep. Sherrod Brown easily beat GOP incumbent Mike DeWine in Ohio, a state where Republican scandals were devastating for the party.
Former state Attorney General Sheldon Whitehouse defeated incumbent Sen. Lincoln Chafee in Rhode Island. Chafee is an openly anti-war Republican who consistently voted against President Bush on legislation.
But Republican Bob Corker, a former mayor of Chattanooga, defeated Democratic Rep. Harold Ford for the seat held by retiring Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist. Ford had sought to become the first black southerner elected to the Senate in more than a century.
'We must change course'
Democrats needed just one more seat to produce a 50-50 Senate, like the one that existed in early 2001, when Vice President Dick Cheney wielded tie-breaking authority.
Americans "have come to the conclusion, as we did some time ago, that a one-party town simply doesn't work," Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., told party workers early Wednesday.
Reid said a strong Democratic turnout in both Senate and House races shows "we must change course in Iraq."
Webb, a former Navy secretary under President Reagan, claimed victory early Wednesday but Allen, behind by fewer than 8,000 votes, urged his supporters to watch the remaining returns carefully.
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"The election continues," Allen told them. "The counting will continue through the night. It will continue tomorrow."
A Democrat also was ahead in Montana. Democrat Jon Tester held a narrow margin of just 3,317 votes over incumbent Republican Sen. Conrad Burns with nearly 83 percent of the vote counted. Election officials in Yellowstone County, Mont., said voting machine problems were delaying reporting of any votes in the Montana Senate race until later Wednesday.
Sen. Joseph Lieberman, the Democrats' vice presidential candidate in 2000 but running as an independent after losing the Democratic primary, kept his seat from Connecticut.
In New Jersey, Sen. Bob Menendez held off a strong challenge from Republican Tom Kean Jr., son of a former governor, to keep the seat in Democratic hands. Menendez, appointed to the seat in January after Jon Corzine gave it up to become governor, had been viewed as the most vulnerable of 17 Senate Democratic incumbents.
Democrats also kept their seat in another important race in Maryland, where Rep. Ben Cardin held off a late surge by Republican Lt. Gov. Michael Steele to succeed retiring Sen. Paul Sarbanes.
Former First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, considering a Democratic bid for the White House in 2008, easily won re-election to a second term from New York.
Lieberman keeps seat
Lieberman will be one of two independents in the new Senate. Rep. Bernie Sanders, an eight-terms congressman who calls himself a socialist, won the seat of retiring Sen. Jim Jeffords, also an independent. Both Lieberman and Sanders have said they will align themselves with Democrats.
Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein of California, Maria Cantwell of Washington and Debbie Stabenow of Michigan were re-elected. Democrats also kept seats in Wisconsin, North Dakota, New Mexico, Michigan, Nebraska, West Virginia, Massachusetts, Florida, Delaware, Wisconsin and Hawaii.
Republican Sen. John Kyl won re-election in Arizona despite Democratic hopes for an upset by wealthy businessman Jim Pederson.
Republicans also won re-election in Indiana, Maine, Mississippi, Wyoming, Texas, Utah and Nevada.
In Florida, Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson handily rebuffed a challenge from Republican Rep. Katherine Harris, a two-term House member.
Harris came to national attention in 2000 when, as Florida secretary of state, she certified Bush as the Florida winner in his nearly deadlocked presidential race with Democrat Al Gore. However, she fell out of favor with Florida Republicans, and was even urged by Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, the president's brother, not to run.
Democrats needed a net gain of six seats to take control of the Senate, which, except for a 19-month period in 2001 and 2002, has been run by Republicans since 1995.
Votes were against GOP
Exit polls showed that almost six in ten voters disapproved of the war in Iraq, and an equal percentage said they disapproved of how President Bush was handling his job.
In Pennsylvania, about half of those who said in exit polls that they voted for Casey characterized their votes being primarily against Santorum rather than a vote for Casey. Casey also got a boost from one-third of voters who said they were angry with Bush. One-fourth of them said they were mad at GOP leaders in Congress.
Ohio voters expressed similar views. About six in 10 Brown voters said their vote was intended to register opposition to Bush. Two-thirds of Brown voters said they disapproved of the way Congress was handling its job.
Amy Klobuchar, a prosecutor, kept the seat of retiring Sen. Mark Dayton in Minnesota in Democratic hands, defeating Republican Rep. Mark Kennedy.
Among incumbents who coasted to re-election were liberal Democratic lion Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts West Virginia Sen. Robert C. Byrd, who has spent more than half of his 88 years in the Senate.
Veteran Republican senators coasted to re-election in five states: Richard Lugar in Indiana, Olympia Snowe in Maine, Trent Lott in Mississippi, Kay Bailey Hutchison in Texas and Orrin Hatch in Utah.
In Wyoming, Republican Craig Thomas, though hospitalized with pneumonia, won re-election to a third term. And Republican Sen. John Ensign in Nevada turned back a challenge from Democrat Jack Carter, son of former President Jimmy Carter.
Other Democrats winning re-election included Tom Carper in Delaware, Jeff Bingaman in New Mexico, Ben Nelson in Nebraska, Herb Kohl in Wisconsin, Kent Conrad in North Dakota and Daniel Akaka in Hawaii.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.