WASHINGTON - Republicans appeared likely to retain their majority in the House of Representatives and were challenging Democrats for control of the Senate last night, based on early, incomplete election returns.
Neither party seemed headed for large gains in either house of Congress, reflecting a nation that remains split almost evenly down party lines. But with Republicans needing a net pickup of just one Senate seat to regain control of that chamber, the Senate contest was turning into an old-fashioned cliffhanger that wasn't likely to be decided until today at the earliest.
Adding to the suspense: a breakdown of the computerized system that TV networks and newspapers have come to rely on to help project winners and losers. That failure put greater reliance on actual vote counts, left analysts in the dark about voters' intentions and slowed the ability of news organizations to determine the outcome of key contests around the country.
On a night when Republicans won the Maryland governorship for the first time since the 1960s, GOP leaders were closely watching returns from tight Senate contests in the Midwest, Upper Midwest and Rocky Mountain West that might give the party a major victory in the fight for Congress as well.
But Democrats, encouraged by the apparent defeat of Republican Sen. Tim Hutchinson of Arkansas, the first incumbent senator to fall in yesterday's balloting, were hoping to retain their razor-thin edge and keep control of Congress split between the parties.
President Bush, who put his prestige on the line with an exhausting campaign that took him to 35 states, watched the returns at the White House after voting earlier in the day near his ranch in Crawford, Texas. With him were Republican congressional leaders and top strategists from the party's House and Senate campaign committees.
Republicans hoped that Bush's popularity, higher than any president at this point in his term in the past 40 years, would insulate his party's candidates from the political effect of a sluggish economy.
In an important triumph for the presidential family, Bush's younger brother Jeb was re-elected by a comfortable margin as governor of Florida over Bill McBride, a Tampa lawyer. Democratic National Chairman Terry McAuliffe had called Jeb Bush's defeat the top priority for Democrats in the 2002 campaign, and the president made a dozen campaign visits to Florida to make sure that wouldn't happen.
At a victory celebration in Miami, Jeb Bush embraced his father, the former president, then thanked "our great president of the United States for coming down and lending a hand to his little brother."
Bush also phoned former Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris, shortly after the polls closed, to congratulate her on her election to Congress from a district on the state's southwest Gulf Coast. Harris played a central role in the state's contentious vote-counting drama that resulted in a 537-vote Bush victory and won him the presidency.
Other key results for Republicans included North Carolina, where Elizabeth Dole, the former transportation secretary and wife of former Sen. Bob Dole, defeated former Clinton aide Erskine Bowles for the seat being vacated by retiring Republican Sen. Jesse Helms. Republicans also held Senate seats being vacated by retiring or defeated incumbents in New Hampshire, South Carolina, Texas and Tennessee.
Democrats gained several big-state governorships. Ed Rendell became the first former Philadelphia mayor in nearly 90 years to win a contest for Pennsylvania governor, an office held by Republicans the past eight years.
In Illinois, Rep. Rod Blagojevich, a congressman from the north side of Chicago, became the first Democrat to win the governorship since 1972.
Republicans, meantime, won in Texas, where Gov. Rick Perry, who ascended to the office after Bush resigned to become president, was elected on his own for the first time. He defeated oilman and banker Tony Sanchez, who put as much as $70 million of his own money into the race, possibly setting a spending record for a losing candidate.
In other governors' contests, Republicans picked up New Hampshire and South Carolina from the Democrats and were leading in Maryland. In Massachusetts, former U.S. Olympic Committee executive Mitt Romney won the race for governor, his first elective office.
The nation's top Democratic officeholder, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, was closely watching that state's tossup Senate contest, which featured incumbent Sen. Tim Johnson against Republican Rep. John Thune. It had the potential to determine which party will control the Senate and whether Daschle would remain as majority leader.
Daschle describe his party's failure to take Senate seats away from the Republicans in North Carolina and New Hampshire as setbacks. But he refused to concede that Democrats might lose the Senate, calling it a "hypothetical" with a number of key Senate contests still too close to call.
Daschle said he did not think the American people wanted to give the Republicans "carte blanche" to control both Congress and the White House, as they did at the start of Bush's term in 2001.
That "is not something the American people want in a 50-50 country," Daschle said on ABC. "If the House is going to be Republican, I think the Senate ought to be Democratic."
One of the first results that cheered Democrats was former Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg's victory in the race for the New Jersey Senate seat being vacated by scandal-damaged incumbent Robert G. Torricelli. The unusual substitution of the retired 78-year-old veteran, late in the campaign, frustrated Republicans, who had been counting on millionaire Doug Forrester to pick up the seat.
Close races for at least a half-dozen Senate seats, and late poll closings in House races in the western United States, made it difficult to know immediately which party would have majority control of the new Congress in January.
Further muddling the picture was a breakdown in the Election Day polling operation run by the television networks and major news organizations. The consortium, known as Voter News Service, interviewed thousands of voters as they left their polling places.
But a buggy computer system made it impossible for VNS to process the information reliably. VNS was supposed to analyze the survey results and provide information on who voted for which candidates and why - trend information that usually is available by early evening on Election Day.
The exit-poll data are also used to help make projections of the outcomes of individual races by TV networks, who combine it with actual returns from selected precincts. In the 2000 presidential contest, that system famously broke down, as the networks made erroneous election night projections of the winner in the pivotal state of Florida.
Computerized projections were still available, using actual returns from selected "key" precincts that, taken together, provide a microcosm of the electorate in an individual state.
Florida officials, meantime, reported none of the major problems that made the state's election system a national joke in recent elections and led the state legislature to provide $32 million for modernization. An additional $3.8 billion in federal aid has also been authorized to help improve the election machinery in all 50 states, though none of that money has actually been provided yet.
Heading into yesterday's balloting, the Congress was more closely divided than at any time in almost a half-century. But Republicans were hoping to make history by picking up seats in the House. Only twice before since the Civil War has the party in power in the White House been able to do that.
The first time was in 1934, during Franklin D. Roosevelt's first term. The second was four years ago, when Bill Clinton was in the White House. Republicans, however, have never gained seats in the midterm elections at a time when they held the White House.
Republicans were also trying to extend their hold on the House for a full decade. They took over in their landslide victory of 1994, picking up 52 House seats and ending 40 years of Democratic rule.
The last time Republicans held the House for a longer period than the present was in 1919 to 1931.
Continuing a strong trend that favors the re-election of incumbents, only about one in 10 congressional seats was being seriously contested yesterday. Most members of Congress had little or no serious opposition, in part because the just-completed round of redistricting strengthened most incumbents. More than 90 percent of House members seeking re-election were all but guaranteed a victory, and the success rate might well approach the 98 percent
Though his name wasn't on the ballot, Bush also tried to lend his popularity to his party. Polls continue to show strong approval of the president, whose job rating is still running roughly 10 points higher than it was prior to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 last year.
In what some have called the most extensive miderm effort ever by a sitting president, Bush campaigned extensively this year, promoting Republicans running for Congress, governor and even some state legislative contests. He also raised a record $200 million-plus over the past two years for his party and its candidates.
Bush's most extensive efforts were reserved for his home state of Texas, where the governorship and a Senate seat were at stake, and Florida. He has made a dozen trips to the Sunshine State, scene of the decisive contest of the 2000 presidential election, in an effort to boost the re-election chances of his brother.
In addition, White House political strategists took an unusually active role in key Senate contests, recruiting candidates in several states. In some cases, Bush abandoned the traditional policy of staying out of contested party primaries.
In Georgia, for example, the White House got behind Republican Rep. Saxby Chambliss during primary season and the national party provided extensive support, both financial and in multiple visits by Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and other administration figures.