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Democratic wave washes over Capitol Hill

Big thinkers, hardy veterans and a few real characters -- Tuesday's Republican trouncing claimed a broad spectrum of legislators whose departures will alter the character of the Hill.
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Big thinkers, hardy veterans and a few real characters -- Tuesday's Republican trouncing claimed a broad spectrum of legislators whose departures will alter the character of the Hill.

"Sometimes you have these larger-than-life figures who just humanize the place," said political scientist Norman J. Ornstein, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. While this was not a Congress known for boldness or achievement, he said, "whenever you have a wave election . . . there will be some distinctive departures."

Among the most surprising of Tuesday's losses was that of Jim Leach, the moderate Iowa congressman whose cool-headed pragmatism and global outlook drew the admiration of many outside his party. Like Rhode Island Sen. Lincoln D. Chafee, Leach was a party liberal whose sometime disagreement with the president's policies failed to save him from a wave of anti-Bush fervor.

Leach, a former Foreign Service officer who was in line to chair the House International Relations Committee, often raised his voice in favor of diplomacy, a contrast with administration Republicans more used to ultimatums than overtures.

"I winced most with Jim Leach's loss," Ornstein said. Like retiring Arizona congressman Jim Kolbe, "Leach has been one of the small number of extraordinary legislators . . . with a larger sense [of] America's role in the world."

Republicans lost two policy-oriented legislators when Democrats took the seats of veteran Republican Reps. Nancy L. Johnson in Connecticut and E. Clay Shaw Jr. in Florida. The pair were in line to claim the two top spots on the House Ways and Means Committee, which Shaw was set to chair. Their departures, along with those of Republican Reps. J.D. Hayworth of Arizona, Jim Nussle of Iowa and scandal-tarred Mark Foley of Florida, gut Ways and Means, the House's most powerful committee.

Johnson, a key opponent to the Clinton health-care plan in the 1990s, lost to antiwar Democrat Chris Murphy, who once served as campaign manager for a Democrat who narrowly lost to her.

Over five terms, Rep. Anne M. Northup of Kentucky bested Democratic challengers in her Louisville-based swing district. But the writing was on the wall when President Bush lost in the district in 2004. This season, her support of the war in Iraq and Democratic Party spending late in the race were enough to swing the contest to Democrat John Yarmuth, an alternative newspaper publisher little known outside the state.

Culture warriors take hit
Defeat also cut deeply into the ranks of Republican culture warriors, who were felled by voter aversion to the Iraq war and corruption scandals that engulfed several conservative Republicans. Hayworth, a loud and brassy opponent of illegal immigration, lost to Harry Mitchell, the comparatively low-key former mayor of Tempe. A former sportscaster and conservative talk show regular, Hayworth represented the rapidly growing and increasingly affluent district that encompasses Scottsdale and Tempe for 12 years. Mitchell ended that, in part by playing up Hayworth's links to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

"There are people who are going to miss [Hayworth], because you never knew what he'd come up with," Ornstein said.

Environmental groups take a big share of credit for felling House Resources Committee Chairman Richard W. Pombo (R-Calif.), in part by spending about $1.5 million in his district. The advocacy group Defenders of Wildlife established a campaign office there in April, hired eight organizers, recruited 2,000 volunteers and knocked on 75,000 doors in the past three months.

Defenders of Wildlife political director Mark P. Longabaugh said his group hammered Pombo both on his environmental record and his "ethical transgressions" that stemmed from the congressman's close ties to special interests. "Pombo was just target-rich throughout this campaign," Longabaugh said. "It was the gift that just kept giving."

In Pennsylvania, senior House Armed Services Committee member and global conspiracy theorist Curt Weldon was thumped by retired Navy Vice Adm. Joe Sestak. Weldon, a committed internationalist fond of organizing freelance missions to the former Soviet Union, is under FBI investigation for allegedly channeling Russian business to his daughter's lobbying firm.

Pennsylvania's Republican rout -- which cost the GOP four House seats and saw the reelection of Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell -- also claimed Rick Santorum, the Senate's third-ranked leader, who was elected in the Republican landslide of 1994. His vocal support of the war, and anti-feminist, anti-gay views -- he once compared homosexuality to bestiality -- put him in the Democratic cross hairs. His was the first Republican Senate seat to fall -- to state Treasurer Bob Casey Jr. -- Tuesday night.

Santorum was "a very combative conservative . . . a very savvy fellow most likely in line to become the whip," Ornstein said.

Santorum's loss, Ornstein said, means "the hopes of getting some larger measure of civility in the Senate may be better."

Staff writer Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report.