Democrats in push to take control of Congress

DEMOCRATS challenged Republicans for control of Congress for US President George W Bush’s final two years in office last night in elections shadowed by war in Iraq and scandal at home.

Thirty-six states elected governors, from Maine to California.

All 435 House seats were on the ballot, along with 33 Senate races, elections that Democrats sought to make a referendum on the president’s handling of the war, the economy and more.

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

Democratic Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, running for re-election with one eye on the 2008 presidential race, voiced her party’s campaign mantra, with one qualification.

“I voted for change, except for me,” she said, casting her ballot with husband Bill, the former president, in Chappaqua, New York.

Mr Bush, who had campaigned hard for Republican lawmakers up to the end, switched to civics cheerleader after voting in Texas.

With wife Laura at his side and an “I voted” sticker on his jacket lapel, he said: “No matter what your party affiliation or if you don’t have a party affiliation, do your duty, cast your ballot and let your voice be heard.”

Congressional Democrats, locked out of power for most of the past dozen years, needed gains of 15 seats in the House and six in the Senate to gain majorities that would let them restrain Mr Bush’s conservative agenda through the rest of his term.

The president campaigned energetically to prevent it, primarily by raising money for his party’s candidates.

He brought in $193 million at about 90 fundraisers, most of them party events in Washington or closed candidate receptions. Only at the last did he turn to traditional open campaign rallies, jetting to 15 cities in the final 11 days.

With Mr Bush’s approval ratings low and the Iraq war unpopular, Republicans conceded in advance that Democrats would gain at least some seats in Congress as well as in statehouses across the country.

Democrats campaigned on a platform of change, beginning at the top.

Representative Nancy Pelosi of California was in line to become the nation’s first female House speaker if her party gained a majority.

Republican speaker Dennis Hastert was assured of re-election to his 11th term in Illinois. But his tenure as the longest-serving Republican speaker in decades was at risk.

Of the 33 Senate races on the ballot, 17 were for seats occupied by Democrats and 15 by Republicans, with one held by an independent. But that masked the real story. In both houses, nearly all the competitive seats were in Republican hands and Democrats were on the offensive.

Republican Senators Mike DeWine of Ohio, Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, Jim Talent of Missouri and Conrad Burns of Montana struggled all autumn against difficult challenges. The Tennessee seat vacated by retiring Majority Leader Bill Frist was also hotly contested.

Democrats had hopes in Virginia, where Senator George Allen looked for a second term.

Republicans poured money into Maryland and Michigan in the campaign’s closing days, hoping to spring upsets and offset expected losses elsewhere.

Scandal complicated the campaign for Republicans, from the months-long corruption investigation spawned by lobbyist Jack Abramoff to the revelation that former Republican Mark Foley had sent sexual ly explicit computer messages to teenage congressional pages.

History was working against the Republicans too.

Since World War II, the party in control of the White House has lost an average 31 House seats and six Senate seats in the second mid-term election of a president’s tenure in office.

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