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Democrats turn the tables in Washington

Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, left, head of the Democrats’ Senate election strategy, and Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada cheer on supporters during an election-night party Tuesday in Washington.Matthew Cavanaugh / EPA
/ Source: and NBC News

Disenchanted with the Iraq war and the party’s ethical lapses, voters punished President Bush and the Republicans, turning the House of Representatives over to the Democrats. And with Senate control resting on a pair of too-close-to-call races Wednesday morning, Bush could spend his last two years fighting off the ambitious agenda of a Democratic-controlled Congress.

According to NBC News projections, Democrats swept to power in the House and are set to install Rep. Nancy Pelosi, a liberal San Franciscan promising to overhaul Washington in the first 100 hours of the new Congress, as the nation’s first female speaker. If they can wrest the last two undecided Senate races from Republican incumbents in Virginia and Montana, Bush’s best defense will be a veto pen he has used just once in six years.

Democrats held razor-thin leads in the two outstanding races, and Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada circulated an e-mail message to supporters declaring, “Democrats will be the Majority in the Senate.” But neither race was close to being decided:

  • In Virginia, Democrat Jim Webb claimed victory but led Sen. George Allen by fewer than 8,000 votes out of just more than 2.3 million cast. Several thousand votes remained to be counted later Wednesday in heavily Democratic precincts in the Washington suburbs, raising the prospect that Webb’s lead could grow, but Allen was counting on a good showing in military absentee ballots, and a recount looked more and more likely.
  • In Montana, veteran Republican power broker Conrad Burns trailed Democrat Jon Tester, 49 percent to 48 percent. Many precincts were yet to report because problems with new voting equipment meant the last voter did not cast his ballot until 11:55 p.m. and required a recount of every vote in Yellowstone County.

Democrats promise new direction
With the House already in hand, Democrats promised a sharp challenge to Bush.

Pelosi has outlined a “First Hundred Hours” agenda that promises to reform lobbying, enact the recommendations of the bipartisan 9/11 commission, raise the minimum wage to $7.25 an hour, cut the interest rate on student loans in half, streamline Medicare’s prescription drug program and expand federal funding for stem cell research.

Democratic Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, who was well on her way to a landslide re-election in New York, told cheering supporters that Bush was in for a bumpy ride.

“Last week, the vice president said [that] regardless of the outcome, the administration would go full speed ahead in the same direction,” she said. “Well, I think the American people have said, ‘Not so fast!’”

By 6 a.m. Wednesday, Democrats had won 234 seats, enough for control, and Republicans held 201, according to NBC News projections.

Among the casualties were such Republican veterans as Curt Weldon of Pennsylvania, Charles Taylor of North Carolina and Nancy Johnson of Connecticut, where her colleague Christopher Shays was also in a tight race.

“In all parts of the country ... I believe the message of a new direction is coming across in all these districts,” Rep. Rahm Emmanuel of Illinois, head of the Democrats’ House election strategy, told MSNBC-TV’s Keith Olbermann.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a likely 2008 presidential contender, said Republicans had lost their way, telling NBC News’ Brian Williams that “many in our base believed we valued power over principle.”

“I think people have a frustration,” he said. “It reflects on the president, as well. We can’t continue to frivolously spend on these pork-barrel projects and call ourselves fiscal conservatives.”

But Ken Mehlman, chairman of the Republican National Committee, refused to concede an inch. “I think that obviously there’s still a lot of information out there,” Mehlman told MSNBC-TV's Chris Matthews.

How the results are gauged
NBC’s projections are based on its analysis of exit polls, precinct models from sample precincts, county vote models provided by The Associated Press and analysis of the raw vote after the polls have closed in a particular state.

Democrats solidified their electoral base for 2008 by sweeping out Republican senators in two of the biggest states: Pennsylvania, where Rick Santorum, the Senate’s No. 3 Republican leader, fell to Bob Casey Jr., son of the former governor; and Ohio, where Mike DeWine lost to U.S. Rep. Sherrod Brown.

Republican Sen. Lincoln Chafee in Rhode Island lost to former state Attorney General Sheldon Whitehouse. And Democrats held on to their fiercely fought seat in New Jersey, another big 2008 state, where Sen. Robert Menendez held off a challenge from Republican Tom Kean Jr.

In Connecticut, Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman won re-election, running as an independent. Although his victory officially is a loss of a Democratic seat, Lieberman has said he will continue to caucus with the Democrats. And Democrats held on to the open seat in Maryland as U.S. Rep. Ben Cardin turned back a late surge from Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, NBC News said.

Early Wednesday morning, Democrats got their fourth Senate pickup in Missouri, where state Auditor Claire McCaskill knocked off incumbent Republican Jim Talent, according to NBC’s projections. Then it all came down to Virginia and Montana.

Democrats had held out hope that they could pick up one of the seats they needed in Tennessee, where Democratic U.S. Rep. Harold Ford Jr. mounted a spirited challenge to former Chattanooga Mayor Bob Corker. But Ford conceded the race shortly after 1 a.m. ET.

GOP governors feel the pinch
Voters’ disenchantment with national Republican policies was .

In Maryland, Democrats ousted Republican Gov. Robert Ehrlich in favor of Baltimore’s Democratic mayor, Martin O’Malley, according to NBC News projections, while in Ohio, NBC projected that Democratic U.S. Rep. Ted Strickland would beat the state’s Republican secretary of state, Kenneth Blackwell. 

In Massachusetts, Democrat Deval Patrick was to become the , defeating Republican Lt. Gov. Kerry Healey, NBC News projected. Patrick, who headed the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division during the Clinton administration, will succeed Republican Gov. Mitt Romney, who is retiring.

And in Colorado — which voted Republican for president in the last three elections — Democrat Bill Ritter defeated Rep. Bob Beauprez for the seat held by Republican Bill Owens.

Referendum on Bush, Iraq
In all, 33 Senate seats were up for grabs, in addition to all 435 House seats, in elections shadowed by what exit polling data indicated was sharp disapproval of the president’s performance and the war.

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

About 6 in 10 voters said in surveys at polling places that they disapproved of the way Bush was handling his job, and roughly the same percentage opposed the war in Iraq. Those who said they were unhappy were more inclined to vote for Democratic candidates than for Republicans, an analysis of the data indicated.

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 conducted by The Associated Press and the television networks.