updated 5/14/2008 12:55:13 AM ET 2008-05-14T04:55:13

Mississippi Democrat Travis Childers won a special election to Congress on Tuesday, helping his party to a third victory in recent months for seats long in Republican hands.

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The victory puts Childers into the seat vacated by Roger Wicker, a Republican appointed to the U.S. Senate when Trent Lott resigned. The win also pushes the Democrats to a 236-199 majority in Congress — if only for a few months until November's general elections.

With all precincts reporting, Childers had 54 percent to Republican Greg Davis' 46 percent.

Earlier this year, Democrats captured the Illinois district long represented by former Republican Speaker Dennis Hastert, who resigned from Congress, then earlier this month, claimed a seat in Louisiana that Republican Rep. Richard Baker left.

Marty Wiseman, a political scientist at Mississippi State University, said if Democrats can carry districts that traditionally have been safe bets for the GOP, "Republican strategists have to be terrified."

"If you think about the House and the Senate ... and the number of Republican Senate seats that are exposed, this could turn into something bigger than the presidential race this fall," Wiseman said Tuesday night.

Elsewhere, Nebraska voters picked the Republican and Democratic candidates to run to replace retiring Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel, while a scandal-clouded state Supreme Court election took center stage in West Virginia.

GOP held seat since 1994
Childers took on Davis for a Mississippi seat that has been held by the GOP since 1994. Both will run against two other candidates in the Nov. 4 general election for the full term, so the winner will likely gain name recognition and a fundraising edge.

Childers is a socially conservative county official, while Davis is mayor of a fast-growing city across the state line from Memphis, Tenn.

The race has attracted national attention, with Vice President Dick Cheney campaigning for Davis on Monday, and Davis running ads trying to tie Childers to Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Childers brushed aside those comparisons, countering that with his own support of gun rights and opposition to abortion, his social values match those of most voters in the deeply conservative district.

Childers and Davis had advanced to Tuesday's runoff by grabbing the top two spots in a six-person special election April 22.

Tom Cole, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, said the loss in Mississippi shows that "Republicans must be prepared to campaign against Democrat challengers who are running as conservatives, even as they try to join a liberal Democrat majority."

Cole said that voters are "pessimistic about the direction of the country and the Republican Party in general" and the GOP must offer "positive change."

Nebraska Senate race
In right-leaning Nebraska, Republican Mike Johanns, the former U.S. agriculture secretary and Nebraska governor, easily beat businessman Pat Flynn in the GOP U.S. Senate primary. Johanns, who has raised more than $2 million, takes Hagel's open support into the general election.

With 97 percent of precincts reporting, Johanns had 78 percent to Flynn's 22 percent.

On the Democrat side, Scott Kleeb beat three other Democrats to advance to the general election. He had 68 percent to Tony Raimondo's 25 percent, while two others each had 3 percent.

In West Virginia, a scandal derailed the state's top judge from serving another term.

Chief Justice Elliott "Spike" Maynard went from shoe-in to embattled incumbent after photos surfaced in January of him vacationing with the chief executive of a massive coal producer.

Among the Supreme Court candidates, Maynard raised the most money, and his well-funded allies included the state's chamber of commerce and medical association. But the photos taken during a Monaco vacation when he met up with Massey Energy Co.'s chief executive grabbed national headlines and became campaign fodder.

The two top vote-getters, a former justice and a Huntington lawyer, will face the lone Republican in the race for two high court spots in November.

With 73 percent of the precincts reporting, Maynard was shown with 19 percent, coming in third in a field of four candidates.

West Virginia Sen. Jay Rockefeller, who hasn't lost a statewide race since 1972, easily beat two challengers as he seeks a fifth six-year term. In November's general election, he'll face Republican Jay Wolfe.

Gov. Joe Manchin had an easy time fending off a primary challenge and will take on Republican Russ Weeks, a former state senator, in November.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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