Democrats make gains as President suffers backlash

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Democrats took a clear advantage in early results from America's bitterly contested congressional midterm elections, gaining two Senate seats and making strides in the House of Representatives, where the Bush White House was last night braced for a loss of the 12-year-old Republican majority.

In the first Democrat gain of the evening, Brad Ellsworth won Indiana's Republican-held 8th congressional district. A Democrat was also narrowly ahead in Kentucky's closely watched 3rd district, where a win would put the party firmly on track to pick up the 15 seats needed to win back the House.

The fierce Virginia Senate contest between incumbent Republican George Allen and challenger Jim Webb was too close to call, cable networks said, as were other make-or-break Senate races in Tennessee and Missouri. But Democrats picked up seats in Ohio and Pennsylvania, according to Fox News, while Bob Menendez was projected to win in New Jersey, where Republicans had hoped for an upset. "But it's going to be a long night," a smiling Charles Schumer, chairman of the Democratic Senate campaign committee said.

In Vermont, Bernie Sanders, a self-declared socialist, as expected won the open Senate seat. In West Virginia, 88-year-old Democrat Robert Byrd, already the longest-serving Senator in history, won a record ninth six-year term. In scandal-plagued Ohio, Democrat Rod Strickland swept to victory in the governor's race.

A predicted 80 million Americans, some 40 per cent of eligible voters, went to the polls. For Democrats, "change" was the watchword as they sought to cash in on public disgruntlement with President Bush and his policies, and end the virtually unbroken Republican grip on Congress since 1994. Fuelling their challenge were a powerful anti-incumbent mood, scandals in Washington, and ever-growing disapproval of the war in Iraq ­ an issue for two-thirds of voters, exit polls showed.

"I voted for change, except for me," the former first lady Hillary Clinton said, before sweeping to re-election in her New York Senate race. Ms Clinton is the Democratic frontrunner in the 2008 race for the White House that will start almost before the ink has dried on yesterday's results.

"Do your duty, cast your ballot and let your voice be heard," President Bush exhorted for his part, after voting at dawn in Crawford, Texas, near his ranch. Immediately afterwards Mr Bush flew back to Washington, to await the results of an election that was largely a referendum on his presidency.

Indications were that in the east, home to many of the most fiercely contested House and Senate seats, Americans took his advice. Turn-out was brisk in the battleground state of Ohio and at near record levels in Virginia. Queues were long at voting stations in Maryland, where there were close contests for the Republican-held governorship and the vacant Senate seat.

In several states ­ including Ohio and Indiana, home to half a dozen bellwether House races ­ problems arose early on as officials and voters struggled to adapt to new electronic balloting equipment. This was despite the Justice Department sending a record 850 poll watchers to 69 cities and counties to safeguard against fraud, discrimination or system malfunctions, especially in close races. In one Indiana county, in Denver, Colorado, and parts of Cleveland, Ohio, courts ordered polling stations to be kept open for an extra two hours because of the delays.

Another complication was bad weather across parts of the midwest and south-east. Some Democratic strategists feared this could benefit Republicans, given the latter's superior ability to get out the vote.

Some polls had suggested Republicans had gained ground in the closing stages of the campaign. Even so, Democrats were widely expected to capture the 15 seats needed in the House, and perhaps five or 10 beyond that.

But Republicans were more confident of hanging on to the Senate, albeit by a reduced margin. To prevail, Democrats had to win six out of seven vulnerable Republican seats, including Virginia, and lose none they currently hold, including those in New Jersey and Maryland.

All 435 seats in the House were at stake, along with 33 in the 100-member Senate, and 36 of the 50 governorships. Of these latter, Democrats are forecast to capture an additional six, among them New York, Ohio and Massachusetts. Many states were also voting on ballot initiatives including bans on gay marriage, stem-cell research and abortion.

Even a partial Democratic victory would transform the landscape in Washington. "Congress will play a much more active role, and possibly in conflict with the President," said David Gergen, a bipartisan White House adviser. "And even if the Democrats don't win, Republicans will be tougher with their own President on Iraq."

The real question therefore is whether Mr Bush will change his approach. In the days before the vote, he showed scant sign of it. "The Democrat philosophy is this: If it breathes, tax it, and if it stops breathing, find its children and tax them," Mr Bush told a rally in Pensacola, Florida.

He also declared that, come what may, the Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, lightning rod for Republican as well as Democratic criticism of the conduct of the war, would stay at the Pentagon until his second term ends in January 2009. Vice-President Dick Cheney ­ who left for a hunting trip after casting his vote in his home state of Wyoming ­ has insisted that, whatever the outcome, the elections would not affect the administration's Iraq policy.

Quietly though, the White House may be preparing the ground for a shift. The cue could be the upcoming recommendations from the bipartisan Iraq Study Group headed by the former secretary of state James Baker. But a Democrat capture of the House and/or Senate might accelerate that process.

He will also have to co-operate on the domestic front, if Congress is to take action on issues like immigration, education and the economy.

One certainty is that Democratic controlled committees would rigorously oversee and investigate the administration ­ a constitutional duty of Congress largely neglected by the previous Republican majority in the House.

But Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic leader in the House who would become Speaker if the Democrats win, has ruled out moves to impeach Mr Bush.


* In Vermont, political independent Bernie Sanders, a Socialist who will side with the Democrats, won the Senate seat now held by another independent, Senator James Jeffords, who is retiring.

* In Massachusetts Deval Patrick is elected first African American Governor. He is only the second elected governor of any US state. Senator Ted Kennedy easily kept his seat in the state.

* In Ohio, the first Democrat Governor is elected since 1986. Ted Strickland beat Republican Ken Blackwell.

* In Florida, Republican Katherine Harris was defeated by Democratic Senator Bill Nelson. She came to attention as Florida Secretary of State, when she certified George Bush as the Florida winner in the deadlocked presidential race with the Democrat Al Gore in 2000.

* In Pennsylvania, Democrat Bob Casey defeated incumbent Republican Senator Rick Santorum ­ number three Republican in the Senate.

* In Louisville, Kentucky, a poll worker was arrested and charged with assault for allegedly choking a voter. The dispute started over the marking of the ballot paper.

* In Ohio, Democrat's Sherrod Brown, defeated incumbent Republican Senator Mike DeWine.

* New Jersey Democrat Robert Menendez held his Senate seat despite a strong challenge from Thomas Kean Jr, son of a popular former governor.

* Chelsea Clinton, daughter of Bill, was turned away from a Manhattan polling station ­ her name was not on the voter list.

* In Ohio, a federal judge in Cleveland ordered 16 polling stations to stay open 90 minutes after polls closed because of delays caused by voting machine problems.


Lynn Sturgis, 48

Profession: Teacher's aide from Santa Monica, California

Voted: Democrat

"The most important issue in this election is to get Democrats back in control in this state and in the country. The things I care about most are women's rights - reproductive rights - which are under threat, along with gay rights and other minority protections. Iraq's important but I'm not sure that's what we're voting on in this election."

Michael Gay, 55

Profession: Sheet metal worker, Hudson, New York

Voted: Republican

"I am not that crazy about the war in Iraq and I think we should get out but I voted Republican because I don't like all the mud-slinging that's been going on. I am not completely happy with Bush's foreign policy but I don't really see that electing a bunch of people from the other side of the aisle is going to do it."

Cary Barnett, 48

Profession: Mother of two children, Chevy Chase, Maryland

Voted: Republican

"There is not a single issue that stood out. They are all important - national security, the economy, education. I normally vote Republican but not to the exclusion of others. Certainly the war in Iraq is a big matter but it's not the only issue. It's huge but there are other issues."

John Long, 66

Profession: Semi-retired carpenter and cabinet-maker, Hudson, New York

Voted: Democrat

"The politicians are out of touch with the population. All of them are. The American constitution is meant to be of the people and by the people but no one is representing us really. These people are not of the people. The political climate the way it is now, well I really think it demands a big change in Washington."

David Evans, 56

Profession: Director of engineers' professional association, Chevy Chase, Maryland

Voted: Democrat and Republican

"I voted for people from both parties. For the main positions, I voted Republican, which means the Senate and Governor. My voting priorities are related to fiscal policy. And more reining in of government - fewer laws and less interference with the way you lead your life."

Tisha Mulligan, 58

Profession: Co-owner of Tanzy's tea shop in Hudson, New York

Voted: Democrat

"I feel more passionate about this election than I have for a long time. I just can't support any Bush politics. I don't want people in Iraq. I don't want Donald Rumsfeld any more. I don't want to support Halliburton. Do you want me to go on? I don't like big business government and also I am pro-choice on abortion rights."

Steven Meltzer, 56

Profession: Writer, Chevy Chase, Maryland

Voted: Democrat and Republican

"I voted Democrat for every position other than Governor. The main factor for me is the general corruption of the Republican party. This is the big umbrella from which all the other issues hang - the war in Iraq, spe nding, health care. President Bush has had a huge impact on my decision. He has a monochrome view of the world and an overbearing, bullying manner."

Sally Troyer, 72

Profession: Retired art dealer, Chevy Chase, Maryland.

Voted: Democrat

"I'm so angry with the Republicans at the moment. It's everything the Republicans have done. We live in the area and we know the corruption level in the government. I think the war in Iraq is a big thing - also the budget deficit is another big issue. The corruption, the expenses for rebuilding Iraq that have gone to President Bush's buddies - it's just outrageous."

Eddie Barnett, 47

Profession: Registered nurse in Hudson, New York

Voted: Democrat

"This little go-round of elections is more important than ever because of the war in Iraq. I think Iraq is the biggest issue for me, but so is giving our money back to the big corporations - giving back our money to the rich. Exxon Mobil has made record profits while us ordinary folk are paying more for gas and heating oil."

Alex Novakovich, 54

Profession: Stay-at-home mother and civic volunteer, in Santa Monica, California,

Voted: Democrat

"We need to ring the bell loud and clear across the country, and get rid of this right-wing Christian, God-is-with-the-Republicans attitude that seems to have swept America. I'm so sick of it. If we have a Democratic Senate and House that don't rubber-stamp everything Bush does, it will help turn this Republican tide."