Democrats make big gains on Capitol Hill

Simon is a Times staff writer.

Democrats strengthened their grip on Congress in Tuesday’s elections, toppling Republican Sens. Elizabeth Dole and John Sununu, but they appeared to be falling short in their bid for perhaps the biggest prize on Capitol Hill: a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate.

With the election of Barack Obama as president and their party in control of both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue for the first time in 14 years, Democrats are nonetheless in a better position to advance their initiatives.

In the House, Democrats hoped to become the first party in more than half a century to make a net gain of 20 or more seats in back-to-back elections.

In the Senate, they either won or held leads in contests for at least five Republican-held seats, making it likely they will increase their majority to at least 56 seats. Four other contests remained undecided early today.


Sixty votes are needed to break a filibuster. But with a larger majority, Democrats should be able to peel off enough Republican votes to achieve many priorities.

Democrats benefited from Obama’s coattails and a strategy that sought to tie Republicans to the deeply unpopular President Bush at a time of economic hardship. As a result, no Democratic-held Senate seat appeared in danger.

In North Carolina, Democrat Kay Hagan, who as a Capitol intern years ago operated the senators’ elevator, defeated Dole, a big-name Republican who was once considered a shoo-in for reelection. In New Hampshire, Democrat Jeanne Shaheen turned out Sununu.

In the West, Democrat Tom Udall won the New Mexico Senate seat being vacated by retiring Republican Sen. Pete Domenici. His cousin, Mark Udall, won the Colorado Senate seat being vacated by retiring Republican Sen. Wayne Allard.


Claiming another formerly Republican seat, Virginia Democrat Mark Warner, a former governor, will succeed retiring Republican Sen. John Warner, who is no relation.

In Minnesota, the most expensive Senate race, Republican Sen. Norm Coleman and Democrat Al Franken of “Saturday Night Live” fame were locked in a tight race. In Oregon, Republican Sen. Gordon Smith faced a strong challenge from Democrat Jeff Merkley.

In Alaska, Ted Stevens, the longest-serving but scandal-plagued Republican senator, faced a tough challenge from Democrat Mark Begich, mayor of Anchorage.

In Georgia, Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss faced a strong challenge from Democrat Jim Martin.

In a bit of relief for Republicans, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky fended off a strong challenge from Democrat Bruce Lunsford to win reelection.

“Winston Churchill once said that the most exhilarating feeling in life is to be shot at -- and missed,” McConnell said after his victory

And in Mississippi, another seat the Democrats hoped to capture, Republican Sen. Roger Wicker defeated Democrat Ronnie Musgrove.

Going into the election, Democrats controlled the Senate 51-49, with the help of two Democratic-leaning independents.


“The days of obstruction are over,” Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York, who oversaw the Democrats’ Senate campaigns, declared at a Democratic victory party in Washington.

Sen. John Ensign of Nevada, who headed the Senate Republicans’ campaign effort, said he was disappointed with the results, adding, “The political environment was so toxic this year for Republicans.”

Ensign predicted the GOP would fare better in 2010. “I think that the Democrats are going to overreach,” he said.

Democrats face one potential complication because of their strained relationship with Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, the party’s 2000 vice presidential nominee. A number of Democrats want to punish the Connecticut senator, now an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, for his support of Republican presidential nominee John McCain.

One punitive step would be to strip him of his committee chairmanship. But Democrats may need Lieberman’s vote to advance their priorities.

Among the Senate newcomers will be Bush’s former Agriculture secretary, Mike Johanns, a Republican leading in the contest for the Nebraska Senate seat being vacated by retiring Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel. Republican Jim Risch was expected to take the Idaho Senate seat being vacated by disgraced Republican Sen. Larry Craig.

But the Democratic victories are likely to embolden the party to pursue an agenda that includes economic stimulus, healthcare and climate change legislation.

In the House, Democrats, who hold a 235-199 edge with one vacancy, gained about a dozen seats, according to incomplete returns, and toppled the last remaining Republican House member from New England, Rep. Christopher Shays of Connecticut, who lost to Democrat Jim Himes.


Widespread GOP losses could cost House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio his leadership job.

Even before the final tally, Rep. Adam Putnam of Florida, who as chairman of the House Republican Conference was the House’s third-ranking Republican, said he was giving up his leadership post.