Times Staff Writer

Two years after reelecting President Bush and affirming the Republican dominance of Washington, voters handed the president and his party a stinging rebuke Tuesday, giving Democrats control of the House for the first time in 12 years in a campaign overshadowed by deepening public disapproval of the Iraq war.

In the Senate, Democrats were on the brink of picking up the six seats they needed to capture a majority, with the outcome resting on cliffhanger races in Montana and Virginia.

The Democratic takeover of the House, and possible victory in the Senate, loomed as the most decisive political shift in Washington since 1994, when Republicans won control of Congress for the first time in 40 years.

Democrats easily picked up the 15 seats they needed to win a House majority -- securing two dozen or more in what amounted to a major statement by voters in an era when ousting a member of Congress is a rarity.


Democrats toppled Republican House incumbents and grabbed open seats across the country, from conservative red states such as Indiana to liberal blue states such as Connecticut, and from rural North Carolina to the suburbs of Philadelphia. Republicans were ousted in costly, often bitter campaigns that hinged more on national issues -- the war in Iraq, Bush’s unpopularity, concern about political corruption -- than on the local concerns that Republicans had hoped to lean on.

The Democratic victories positioned Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) to become the first female speaker of the House. “Today, the American people voted for change, and they voted for Democrats to take our country in a new direction -- and that is exactly what we intend to do,” Pelosi said at a raucous victory rally in Washington.

“Let us work together to find a solution to the war in Iraq,” she said, adding: “We cannot continue down this catastrophic path.”

In the Senate, Democrats picked up four seats, but their ability to reach a majority was uncertain because of a neck-and-neck race in Virginia, where Democrat Jim Webb held a narrow lead over Republican Sen. George Allen. The contest could be decided in a recount.

In addition, results were incomplete in Montana. If Democrats won both of those states, they would gain a majority in the Senate -- something that has eluded them since 1994, except for a period of about 18 months during Bush’s first term.

In one of the night’s marquee races, Democrats hit their top target and defeated Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), a party leader and a standard-bearer of the religious right. In Missouri, Republican Sen. Jim Talent conceded defeat in one of the closest elections of the campaign.

Also defeated were Republican Sens. Mike DeWine of Ohio and Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, who was burdened by low approval ratings for Bush in his home state.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) easily won a second term, clearing the way for her to focus on whether to run for president in 2008. Sen. Joe Lieberman, who was defeated in the Democratic primary by antiwar liberal Ned Lamont, won reelection as an independent.

In California, Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein was reelected by a landslide. She was one of 33 senators up for reelection this year. All 435 House seats were on the ballot.

Voter turnout was expected to shatter midterm-election records, driven by the major parties’ massive get-out-the-vote efforts and the enormous stakes involved. Democrats portrayed the election as a referendum on Bush and the need for change. The GOP warned that the nation’s security would be at risk if Democrats won. But voters’ desire for change apparently outweighed any fear they might have about the direction Democrats would pursue.

Democratic control of even one chamber of Congress will cast a long shadow over the remainder of Bush’s second term. If there is any chance of enacting major legislation, Bush and congressional Democrats will have to polish their skills at building bipartisan governing coalitions after years of tense, polarized relations.

The White House announced Bush would hold a news conference today to discuss the election results. Press Secretary Tony Snow said the outcome was “not what we would’ve hoped” and that it would be up to the Democrats to show willingness to work across party lines.

“The president has got a very active agenda for the next two years, and you’re going to need both parties,” he said.

He said Bush would call Pelosi in the morning to congratulate her.

Democrats say their victory is a mandate for a change of course in Iraq. The war dominated the campaign, especially in recent weeks, when violence and casualties surged. It was a particularly powerful force in suburban swing districts -- outside Philadelphia and in Connecticut, for example -- that were treacherous for Republican incumbents.

Democrats said their campaign message -- that it was time for a new direction in Washington -- was resonating because of broad voter frustration with Bush, Iraq and political corruption in the Republican-controlled Congress.

Among Republicans monitoring the bad news throughout the evening, the mood was a far cry from the giddy optimism after the 2004 election, when Bush and his chief political advisor, Karl Rove, were aspiring to establish a lasting majority.

“This has been the most disappointing race in my political lifetime,” said conservative activist Paul M. Weyrich.

Many of the Republican House members who were defeated were moderates who suffered as Bush dug in on Iraq and his party drifted to the right.

“This election is the end of the Republican revolution. They became too narrow and too extreme and too rigid in every way,” said Matt Bennett, vice president of Third Way, a centrist Democratic group. “They lost sight of the fact that moderates and independents are the kingmakers of American politics.”

Especially if Republicans retain control of the Senate, there will be limits to what Democrats can accomplish. But with control over House committees and the legislative agenda, they will have powerful tools to challenge the administration and to spotlight their goals, even if they cannot produce much legislation.

The current speaker, J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), is expected to retire or resign from the leadership rather than retreat to its back benches after his party’s loss of control in the House.

Although Bush’s unpopularity made him less sought-after as a campaigner than he was in 2002, when his standing was high, the president has visited 27 states since Labor Day; in the waning days of the campaign, he seemed to acknowledge that the Democrats had succeeded in making the election a referendum on him and his policies.

Republicans also were hobbled by a spate of political corruption scandals. Three House seats that otherwise would have been slam-dunks for Republicans were put at risk with the resignations of Reps. Tom DeLay (R-Texas), who was indicted on money-laundering charges; Bob Ney (R-Ohio), who pleaded guilty of corruption charges arising from his relationship with disgraced former lobbyist Jack Abramoff; and Mark Foley (R-Fla.), who robbed the GOP of momentum when his sexually explicit messages to teenage boys who had served as House pages were revealed in late September.

All three of those seats were won by Democrats.

In the House, one of Republicans’ earliest casualties came in Indiana, where Rep. John Hostettler was handily defeated by Brad Ellsworth, a sheriff who touted his credentials as a conservative Democrat opposed abortion and gun control.

Ellsworth personified a key element of the Democratic election strategy: In many Republican-leaning districts, Democratic leaders sought out more conservative and moderate candidates who they thought were more likely to win -- even though that strategy riled some party activists by shunning liberals.

The rout of Republican incumbents around the country wiped out such senior lawmakers as Reps. E. Clay Shaw Jr. of Florida and Anne M. Northup of Kentucky, who had beaten strong challengers in past years but were unable to survive this year’s stiff anti-GOP tide. The Democratic wave also swept away several incumbents who had not faced a serious race in years, such as moderate GOP Rep. Nancy L. Johnson of Connecticut.

Ethics woes took a heavy toll in Republican ranks. In addition to winning the seats vacated by DeLay, Foley and Ney, a Democrat defeated Rep. Don Sherwood (R-Pa.), largely because of allegations that the lawmaker had tried to choke his mistress. Rep. John E. Sweeney (R-N.Y.) was hurt by reports that his wife had called the police to complain he had been beating her. Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Pa.) was undone by reports of a federal investigation into allegations that he had used his influence to secure lobbying contracts for his daughter.

In the Senate, Santorum’s defeat was widely predicted, because he had been trailing his Democratic opponent, state Treasurer Bob Casey Jr., for months in the polls. But because he was the Senate’s most powerful and outspoken proponent of social conservative causes including curbing abortion, his defeat was of enormous national consequence.

As the Senate Republicans’ No. 3 leader, Santorum had been targeted by Democrats with the same vigor with which the GOP two years ago sought -- and secured -- the defeat of the Senate’s then-Democratic leader, Tom Daschle of South Dakota.

Democrats breathed a big sigh of relief Tuesday with the reelection of Sen. Robert Menendez in New Jersey. He was the only Democratic senator who had been considered vulnerable.

Democrats also managed to retain Senate seats they already held but which were considered at risk. In Minnesota, county prosecutor Amy Klobuchar won the seat vacated by Sen. Mark Dayton. The reelection of Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) dashed GOP hopes of scoring a come-from-behind victory. In Maryland, Democratic Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin won the open seat, despite a surprisingly strong challenge from Republican Lt. Gov. Michael Steele.


Times staff writers Tom Hamburger, Moises Mendoza, Molly Hennessy-Fiske and Faye Fiore contributed to this report.