Democrats make early gains as returns come in

The Democratic Party, which hoped to wrest control of both the House and the Senate in today's congressional elections, got off on the right foot when Bob Casey Jr. of Pennsylvania ousted the third-ranking member of the Senate Republican leadership, and another Republican Senate incumbent fell in Ohio. And in Indiana, where the Democrats targeted three Republican incumbents in the House, a Democratic challenger defeated one of them, and the other two were locked in tight races.

To win control of the House, Democrats had to gain 15 seats, a goal that appeared to be well within reach. Indiana's initial result reduced the Democrats' magic number to 14, and they had their sights set on many more than 13 seats now held by Republicans.

In the Senate, by contrast, just about every close race had to fall the Democrats' way if they were to win the six seats they needed to take control there. They could scarcely afford to lose any of their incumbents, and they breathed a sigh of relief when New Jersey's Robert Menendez apparently fended off a stiff challenge.

A Democratic takeover of either chamber would complicate President Bush's final two years in the White House. The Congress that will go out of business shortly after the first of the year was recalcitrant enough, forcing Bush to veto his first bill, authorizing embryonic stem cell research, and enacting few of his top-priority legislative requests. A Democratic Congress that took office in January might not be able to accomplish much legislatively over his veto, but it could block Bush's agenda and conduct public investigations of controversial administration policies from the war in Iraq to alleged corruption in the No Child Left Behind program.

Not since the Republican landslide of 1994 have the Democrats controlled the House. It was then that Rep. Newt Gingrich of Georgia, who since made a scandal-ridden exit from Congress, engineered one of the great landslides of recent decades. Republicans gained 53 seats in the House, defeating 34 Democratic incumbents in the process.

Republicans also gained control of the Senate that year by picking up eight seats. Since then, Democrats twice regained control of the Senate, although Republicans have enjoyed a majority since 2003.

This election is six years into Bush's presidency; the last big Democratic win in congressional elections was in 1986, a comparable juncture in Ronald Reagan's administration. Democrats won control of the Senate by picking up eight seats. They added only five House seats, although they already had a huge majority of 253 seats to the Republicans' 182.

As the polls close sequentially from east to west, vote counts will reveal whether the Democrats will control zero, one or two chambers in the next Congress.