WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- Republicans took a giant step toward becoming America's dominant party yesterday, taking over the Senate and revoking the Democrats' 40-year lease on the House.
In one of the most momentous political shifts in decades, Republicans took control of both houses of Congress for the first time since 1954. With returns still trickling in from a host of close races, Republicans were projected to capture more than the 40 seats they needed to take over the House of Representatives.
Democrats had held a 256-178 majority in the last Congress, which also included an independent.
Republicans also scored major gains in governors' contests and now control the statehouses in eight of the nine most populous states.
The Republican wave was broad and deep. It was particularly strong in the South and Southwest, once Democratic bastions. In a contest that seemed to capture the GOP's remarkable turnaround, Republican George W. Bush unseated Texas Gov. Ann W. Richards, exactly two years after his father lost the White House.
Some of the nation's best-known Democrats were swept from power by the Republican tide, including New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo, who failed in his bid for a fourth term, and indicted Illinois Rep. Dan Rostenkowski, once one of the most powerful men in Congress.
Also, House Speaker Thomas S. Foley of Washington was fighting for survival last night, and appeared likely to become the first House speaker since 1860 to be thrown out of office.
Gingrich is somber
Republican Rep. Newt Gingrich of Georgia, a conservative gut-fighter whose partisan tactics helped pave the way for his party's surprising return to power, sounded an uncharacteristically somber note last night.
"I can tell you, it is a very sobering and, I think, a very humbling experience," said the man who could become the first Republican speaker of the House since Dwight D. Eisenhower's first term.
Mr. Gingrich said the House would immediately move in January to pass the 10-point "Contract for America" signed by more than 300 GOP candidates. It calls for a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution, a middle-class tax cut and a term limit on members of Congress.
'A burden to carry'
Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas, who is in line to become the majority leader in January, acknowledged that the voters had given Republicans "a burden to carry, and they expect us to respond," citing "this anti-government mood out there."
"We better demonstrate that we can produce," said Mr. Dole, a potential 1996 GOP presidential contender.
As stunned Democrats began to sift through the devastating returns, they and their allies back home began to adjust to a new reality: one of diminished clout after decades of virtually unchallenged power on Capitol Hill.
Heavily Democratic Maryland, for example, will lose the influential committee posts of its two senators, including Democrat Paul S. Sarbanes, who was re-elected yesterday but will now have to settle for the lesser role of ranking minority member of the Banking Committee, instead of the chairmanship.
Bitter setback for Clinton
The midterm election was a particularly bitter setback for President Clinton, whose unpopularity was a burden for many Democratic candidates and whose personal campaign efforts largely came to naught. Mr. Clinton, who remained out of public view last night, now faces the prospect of a Congress controlled by the opposition party for the remainder of his term.
Conservatives led the Republican charge, despite the defeat of Oliver L. North, who failed in his attempt to unseat Democratic Sen. Charles S. Robb of Virginia.
GOP conservatives won Senate seats in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee (two), Arizona and Michigan, all of which had been held by Democrats.
A Republican moderate, Rep. Olympia Snowe, picked up the Maine seat of retiring Sen. George J. Mitchell, for a GOP gain of eight Senate seats and a 52-48 Republican majority.
Republicans also won the governorships of seven of the eight most populous states, picking up New York, Texas and Pennsylvania and failing only in Florida, where Gov. Lawton M. Chiles Jr. , a Democrat, turned back a spirited challenge from another Bush son, Jeb. Republicans already controlled North Carolina and New Jersey.
Republicans now hold a majority of state governorships for the first time since 1970, having also picked up those in Tennessee, New Mexico, Wyoming, Rhode Island and Oklahoma, all of which had been in Democratic hands.
Although voters were clearly sending a sequel to the message of change they delivered in the 1992 election, about 90 percent of the incumbent members of Congress running yesterday won re-election. Only two Democratic senators, Pennsylvania's Harris Wofford and Tennessee's Jim Sasser, were defeated.
But those House members who did lose were mainly Democrats. Roughly half the seats that Republicans gained were "open" seats -- ones that had been vacated by Democrats who either decided to retire or to seek another office.
Kennedy escapes scare
TTC The Democrats' most famous liberal, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, escaped an early campaign scare and easily won re-election.
The election results struck a deep political blow at Mr. Clinton, who campaigned vigorously over the past week in a futile effort to stave off the Republican wave.
Exit polls indicated that voters now consider the Democrats to be on the wrong side of the demand for change that carried Mr. Clinton to office in 1992.
"The American people voted for change in 1992," Democratic national chairman David Wilhelm said last night. "They voted for change again in 1994."
An Election Day survey of voters as they left polling places also linked Mr. Clinton's unpopularity in the South to Republican gains there.
The Democrats' most serious loss of the day came in Vice President Al Gore's home state of Tennessee, where a Republican landslide cost Democrats the governorship and two Senate seats, despite repeated campaign visits to the state by Mr. Gore.
Mr. Sasser, an 18-year incumbent who had been considered a good bet to become the Senate Democratic leader in the new Congress, was toppled by a political novice, Bill Frist, a Nashville surgeon who pumped $2.2 million of his own money into the race.
And in the race for Mr. Gore's former seat, Fred Thompson, a one-time Watergate committee lawyer turned movie actor, won an easy victory over Rep. Jim Cooper.
With results still incomplete, the Democratic losses were clearly higher than usual for the president's party in a midterm election.
Over the past 40 years, the president's party has only lost an average of 12 House seats and no Senate seats in the first midterm of the president's term.
The Republican victories in House and Senate races presage a clear shift to the right on Capitol Hill, according to politicians in both parties.
That means that as he tries to get his agenda passed in the next two years, Mr. Clinton will have to either move to the right or choose a strategy of confrontation with Congress that could produce more partisan bitterness and stalemate.
But his top aide, White House Chief of Staff Leon E. Panetta, conceded last night that Mr. Clinton would have to "reach out to Republicans and see if we can achieve real change over the next two years . . . on a bipartisan basis."
On issues such as welfare reform and the economy, two of the major agenda items for next year in Washington, "the Republicans now are going to have to share responsibility in trying to deliver on some of these concerns," said Mr. Panetta.
Mr. Clinton has scheduled a news conference for this afternoon at the White House, in which he is expected to give his assessment of the election.
Meantime, Republicans were posting impressive gains in governors' races.
They held on to the statehouses in Michigan, Illinois, Ohio and Massachusetts, and picked up governorships in Wyoming, Kansas and New Mexico that had been held by Democrats.