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GOP ceded the center and paid the price

Times Staff Writer

For six tumultuous years President Bush has provoked intense opposition while mobilizing passionate support for an ambitious conservative agenda.

On Tuesday, that perilous strategy crumbled -- and triggered his party’s abrupt fall from power.

Republicans lost control of the House, and teetered on the edge of losing the Senate as well. The widespread losses will present Bush and the GOP with a sharpened challenge from congressional Democrats eager to command attention for their policy priorities, such as raising the national minimum wage, and to investigate the administration’s performance on Iraq, global warming and other issues.

In the long run, the reversals raise fundamental questions about the viability of the strategy Bush and his chief political advisor, Karl Rove, have pursued to build a lasting Republican political majority.

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Bush and Rove placed their main emphasis on unifying and energizing Republicans and right-leaning independents with an agenda that focused squarely on the goals of conservatives.

But Tuesday’s broad Democratic advance underscored the risks in that approach: In many races, Republicans were overwhelmed by an energized Democratic base and a sharp turn toward the Democrats by moderate swing voters unhappy with the president’s performance.

“The story line really is that the Democrats are winning the middle,” said Democratic pollster Al Quinlan.

Veteran GOP pollster Bill McInturff said: “Iraq is front and center of this election, and people voted for change. The GOP base held -- was motivated and voted -- but the margins among independents and moderates [for Democrats] was too much to overcome.”

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The National Election Pool exit polls conducted by Edison Media Research and Mitofsky International showed that 80% of voters who disapproved of the Iraq war voted Democratic for Congress, while 80% who approved voted Republican. But only about two in five voters approved of the war, while nearly three-fifths disapproved, according to figures posted by CNN.

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A mirror revolt

Tuesday’s election may represent a bookend to the historic Republican landslide in 1994.

In that election, Republicans captured the Senate by gaining eight seats and won the House for the first time in 40 years by gaining 52 seats. The engine for the GOP advance was a widespread backlash, both among its core supporters and independent swing voters, when Democratic President Clinton veered left on several key issues after promising to govern as a centrist.

Republicans have controlled the House since then, and the Senate for all but 18 months. But on Tuesday, a political uprising that looked like the mirror image of the voter revolt against Clinton broke the GOP’s grip on the House and left Democrats within reach of a Senate majority, depending on final results in Virginia and Montana.

The election saw Democrats strengthen their hold over the regions in the country where they are already strong, with Senate victories in Maryland, New York, New Jersey and Rhode Island, and House gains in Pennsylvania, Connecticut and New York.

At the same time, Democrats pushed into Republican territory with a big Senate win in Ohio, a pick up of three House seats in Indiana, as well as gains in the interior West.

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The Democratic successes in such places chipped away at one of the most powerful patterns of the last few decades: a tendency for each party to consolidate its control of House and Senate seats from states it usually carries in the presidential races.

Republicans continued to enjoy strong support from their core supporters, based on the results from several key races and exit polls.

In Virginia’s tight Senate race, for instance, Republican Sen. George Allen stayed nearly step-for-step with Democrat Jim Webb partly by capturing nearly 60% of the vote in Chesterfield County, a traditional GOP stronghold outside Richmond, and running slightly better than he did six years ago in Chesapeake, a conservative military-influenced community in the state’s far southeast corner.

Republicans also held hotly contested GOP-leaning districts in Florida and Virginia and mounted strong challenges against Democratic House incumbents in Georgia.

But in many places, that wasn’t enough to overcome strong turnout from Democrats and widespread defection from independents.

The determination of the Democratic base to strike a blow against Bush was evident in the large turnout in party strongholds like Philadelphia and Cleveland.

At the same time, Democrats registered gains among two groups of swing voters.

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Swinging to the left

The results suggested that socially moderate, upscale voters were breaking clearly for the Democrats.

In Pennsylvania, Republican Sen. Rick Santorum six years ago carried all three of the large suburban counties outside Philadelphia by a combined total of nearly 100,000 votes. But on Tuesday, the overall victory margin for Democrat Bob Casey Jr. in these counties exceeded 120,000 as he cruised to victory.

The same trend was evident in Virginia. Webb pulverized Allen in the affluent suburbs outside Washington, amassing imposing margins that gave him a slender lead at night’s end.

Democrats also made gains among more socially conservative, economically strained swing voters, who have provided critical votes for Republicans in recent years.

In Indiana, Democrat Brad Ellsworth convincingly defeated Rep. John Hostettler in a heavily rural district where Bush captured over three-fifths of the vote two years ago.

Beaver and Westmoreland counties in Pennsylvania’s southwest corner, considered strongholds of blue-collar conservative “Reagan Democrats,” split about evenly in Santorum’s reelection six years ago. But Casey carried them by nearly 25,000 votes on Tuesday.

John C. Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron, said the erosion Republicans faced among affluent and working-class swing voters underscored the risks of Bush’s decision to push an agenda opposed by nearly half the country on even his best days.

“The Bush people chose to put up with a very high level of conflict,” Green said. “They didn’t try to build a large consensus majority.”

Bush wasn’t on the ballotTuesday, but he loomed as a decisive factor. Attitudes toward Bush powerfully shaped the results.

In Missouri, for instance, site of Democrat Claire McCaskill’s nail-biting win over Republican Sen. Jim Talent, the exit poll showed that almost 90% of those who approved of Bush’s performance backed Talent, while nearly 85% of those who disapproved backed McCaskill.

That was a key to McCaskill’s victory because the majority of Missouri voters disapproved of Bush’s performance.

In other states such as Ohio, Rhode Island, New Jersey and Maryland, exit polls found much more lopsided majorities than in Missouri disapproving of Bush’s performance -- a trend that created large hurdles for GOP candidates.

Especially ominous for the GOP may have been the reopening of the gender gap. In 2004, Bush used security issues to narrow the traditional Democratic advantage among women.

But with surveys for months showing women especially dismayed over the course of the Iraq war, Democrats ran up decisive margins with female voters in Missouri and other states, according to the exit polls.

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ronald.brownstein@ latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Missouri exit poll

Q: What was the reason for your vote for U.S. Senate . . .

*--* Claire McCaskill Jim Talent All voters voters voters Support for George W. Bush 19% 1% 38% Opposition to George W. Bush 33% 62% 2% George W. Bush was not a factor 45% 32% 59%

*--*

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Q: How did you vote on Amendment 2, regulating stem cell

research?

*--* McCaskill voters Talent voters Yes 83% 26% No 17% 74% *--*

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Q: How did you vote on Proposition B, raising the minimum wage?

*--* McCaskill voters Talent voters Yes 93% 57% No 7% 43%

*--*

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Q: Do you approve or disapprove of the way George W. Bush is handling his job as president? (among all voters)

Approve: 45%

Disapprove: 53%

Don’t know: 2%

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Q: In your vote for U.S. senator, how important was . . .

(among all voters)

*--* Extremely/ Somewhat very important not important The war in Iraq 62% 38% The issue of terrorism 67% 32% The economy 83% 16% Same-sex marriage/abortion 62% 38%

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Note: Based on preliminary exit poll results.

Numbers may not total 100% where multiple responses were accepted or some answer categories are not shown.

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The National Election Pool exit poll conducted by Edison Media Research and Mitofsky International interviewed 2,388 voters as they left 100 polling places across Missouri during voting hours. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus two percentage points; for some subgroups the error margin may be somewhat higher. Because the survey does not include absentee voters or those who declined to participate when approached, actual returns and demographic estimates by the interviewers were used to adjust the sample slightly.

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Source: NEP exit poll


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