Bush Leads GOP to Control of Congress

By: Associated Press
By: Associated Press

Exultant Republicans took control of the Senate and held onto the House, handing President Bush historic bragging rights and two years to push through an agenda starting with deeper tax cuts. Sweetening the prize, Republicans claimed a majority of the governors' races and left Democrats grumbling about a popular wartime president.

Bush made celebratory calls into the early morning hours Wednesday and already was talking of his own 2004 re-election campaign. White House advisers boasted about a new mandate, and said the president would be beckoning Democrats to fall in line.

Republican leaders, in a victory lap on the morning talk shows, credited Bush's aggressive campaigning and a fired-up GOP base of supporters for pushing the party to heights few had thought possible in a midterm election, when the president's party historically loses seats.

``I had a sense or a feel that maybe this would happen but I must say it did exceed our hopes and expectations,'' said Mississippi Sen. Trent Lott, expected to return as majority leader with the GOP taking clear control of Congress.

Outgoing Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., glumly acknowledged, ``This was one tough night,'' and said the war on terrorism and the prospect of war with Iraq drowned out what the Democrats were trying to say about the shaky economy.

``The president made that his drumbeat,'' Daschle said. ``It resonated.'' Daschle said Democrats had expected a much better night but saw their support drop off in the last few days of the campaign.

When the new Congress is sworn in in January, it will be the first time in 50 years that Republicans take outright control of the White House, Senate and House.

After prevailing in a squeaker in Minnesota, where Senate votes were counted until sunup Wednesday, Republicans will hold at least 51 Senate seats — plus Vice President Dick Cheney's tie-breaking vote. In the House, Tuesday's voting padded the GOP majority by at least two seats.

Republican Rep. Saxby Chambliss, who denied incumbent Democrat Max Cleland a second term in the Senate, heard directly from Bush that Republicans should stay mobilized.

``He said that two years from now he wants you all on his team,'' Chambliss told cheering supporters.

``Oh, wow,'' said North Carolina's Elizabeth Dole, one of seven newly elected Republican senators. ``What a night!''

And Robert Ehrlich, who will be the first Republican governor of Maryland in nearly four decades, declared, ``To Maryland Republicans, our time in the desert is over.''

There was some consolation for Democrats. They broke the GOP grip on governorships in Illinois, Michigan and Pennsylvania, electoral troves critical to Bush's designs on a second term. Democrats also captured formerly Republican or independent-held governorships in Kansas, Maine, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Wisconsin and Wyoming.

Still, Republicans claimed at least 20 of the 36 governorships at stake Tuesday.

Yet undecided early Wednesday was the South Dakota battle between Daschle protege Sen. Tim Johnson, the Democrat incumbent, and Rep. John Thune, the GOP challenger hand-picked by Bush. The governors' races in Arizona and Oregon were also too close to call.

The president's younger brother Jeb easily held onto the Florida governor's office, beating back the full force of a national Democratic Party that had made him its No. 1 target — not only to avenge the 2000 presidential recount debacle in Florida, but also as hopeful prelude to toppling the older Bush in 2004.

Norm Coleman, Bush's recruit to challenge incumbent Sen. Paul Wellstone, narrowly defeated former vice president Walter Mondale, the Democrat named to the ballot after Wellstone's death in a plane crash 11 days before the election.

Tuesday's off-year ballot appeared to draw little more than a third of eligible Americans to the polls, where widely anticipated technical problems amounted to little more than a few hiccups. Only the Alabama governor's race lingered in dispute because of a disagreement over the vote count.

In Florida, Secretary of State Jim Smith was relieved to report a ``boring'' day of scattered glitches in touchscreen voting machines whose problems delayed Sept. 10 primary results by a week.

``We finally have this monkey off our back that we cannot conduct a proper election in Florida,'' Smith said.

His predecessor, Katherine Harris — Democratic villain and Republican heroine for her role in the 2000 presidential recount — coasted to election for a House seat representing the Sarasota area.

The trend in the House as of early Wednesday pointed toward single-digit GOP gains and a possible turnover in Democratic leadership. Officials said Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri would decide within a day or two whether to seek a new term as minority leader, and two of the officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said he was unlikely to do so.

The Republican majority for a fifth straight election assured Illinois Rep. Dennis Hastert a third term as House speaker.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., chairwoman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said her side was outgunned nationwide by a Republican White House that raised a record $180 million-plus, micromanaged the selection of GOP candidates, and blanketed the campaign trail with Bush, first lady Laura Bush, Cheney, and his wife, Lynne.

``We were facing an unprecedented amount of money,'' Murray said. ``We were unable to get our message out over the war on Iraq and over the war on terrorism. We faced an unprecedented challenge trying to yell above the White House.''

Bush's approval ratings, which shot up after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, have hovered in the high 60s, despite a sputtering economy, corporate accounting scandals involving some of his biggest campaign donors and public anxiety about his talk of war with Iraq.

Daschle spoke of common ground, but it was unclear how cowed Democrats would be. Bush will have to reach out to at least some Democrats because Senate rules can require 60 votes to get legislation and nominations approved.

``Now ... we start to fight like the dickens in the U.S. Senate,'' said Tovah Ravitz-Meehan, speaking for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Tuesday's vote marked only the third time in a century that the president's party improved its position in the House at midterm, and the first time for Senate gains in two decades.

In Missouri, Bush's aggressive campaigning helped former Rep. Jim Talent oust incumbent Sen. Jean Carnahan. And Republicans successfully defended open seats in New Hampshire, where Rep. John Sununu triumphed, and in a string of Southern states, the president's Texas among them.

In Louisiana, Republicans forced Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu into a December runoff.

Democratic incumbent governors fell in Georgia and South Carolina.

White House press secretary Ari Fleischer hinted at an overdue mandate for the president, whose 2000 election without a majority of the popular vote was decided by the Supreme Court.

``The fact that the president began governing with such a small base of support, I think it's very fair to say that a good portion of the results and history being made is attributable to the president's popularity and his hard work on behalf of the candidates,'' Fleischer said.

Already, Bush advisers have been at work on a possible set of new tax cuts whose centerpiece would be the permanent extension of his 10-year reduction in income and inheritance taxes. And Bush is eager to bulldoze objections by Senate Democrats and labor unions to parts of his plan for a new Department of Homeland Security.

Bush's post-Sept. 11 agenda obviously found some resonance.

``I believe that right now in our country we need protection and I don't want to see President Bush get stalemated by another party's views as far as protecting our country,'' Dan Wessels of Lakewood, Colo., said after voting for successful Republican incumbent Sen. Wayne Allard.

Ballot initiatives to legalize or lighten up on marijuana use were rejected in Nevada, Arizona and Ohio. Cigarette smokers were slapped in Florida, with a ban on smoking in restaurants and virtually all other workplaces, and in Arizona with a sharp spike in cigarette taxes — from 58 cents to $1.18 per pack.

Californians gave a potential boost to actor Arnold Schwarzenegger's political ambitions, approving his proposal to earmark a half-billion dollars annually for after-school programs.

Curtis Gans, director of the independent Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, said turnout on Tuesday may have been a percentage point or two higher than it was in 1998, when 35.3 percent of the voting age population cast ballots — the lowest midterm turnout since 1942.


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