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Democrats rout Republicans to take control of chamber

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON -- Democrats won control of the House in yesterday's midterm elections, toppling several House GOP incumbents as voters demonstrated their disenchantment with a war, a president and scandals on Capitol Hill.

The Democrats' victory for control of the House tips the balance of power in Washington for the last two years of President Bush's term and brings the most dramatic political change in Washington since 1994, when Republicans won control of the Congress for the first time in 40 years.

Democrats seemed poised to pick up far more than the seats they needed to gain the majority, with Republicans losing 21 seats, based on unofficial returns. By early today, no Democratic incumbent had lost.

A Democratic-controlled House puts Rep. Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, in position to become the first female speaker of the House.

Faced with the inevitable, the White House made plans for President Bush to call Pelosi first thing this morning, and Republican Party Chairman Ken Mehlman said: "It's possible that Nancy Pelosi will become House speaker."

Democratic control of even one chamber of Congress will cast a long shadow over the remainder of Bush's second term. It will test both parties' skills at building bipartisan governing coalitions, after years of tense, polarized relations between Bush and congressional Democrats.

The Democrats' will likely victory be viewed as a mandate for a change of course in Iraq because, more than any other issue, the war there dominated the midterm campaign, especially in its waning weeks when violence and casualties there surged. It was particularly powerful force in the suburban swing districts - outside Philadelphia and in Connecticut, for example - that were political killing fields 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.

"There is incredible interest by Democrats and independents and change-minded Republicans who are willing to vote for a new direction," said Rep. Rahm Emanuel, a Illinois Democrat and chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Republicans anxiously monitored returns that seemed likely to end more than a decade of GOP dominance that began when Democrats were driven from power on Capitol Hill in 1994. The mood was very different from the giddy optimism in the GOP after the 2004 election, when Bush and his chief political adviser, Karl Rove, were aspiring to establishing a lasting majority for the party.

Early this morning, Pelosi, addressed a crowd of party faithful at an election night fete at a Washington hotel. "The campaign is over. Democrats are ready to lead," she said.

The current speaker, Rep. Dennis Hastert, an Illinois Republican, has been expected to retire or resign from Congress rather than retreat to its back benches.

"It's been kind of rough out there," conceded Hastert, who won a 11th term.

Republicans were also hobbled by a spate of political corruption scandals.

Three House seats that otherwise were slam-dunks for Republicans were picked up by Democrats in wake of the resignations of Reps. Tom DeLay, a Texas Republican, who was indicted on money-laundering charges; Bob Ney, an Ohio Republican who pleaded guilty of corruption charges arising from his relationship with disgraced former lobbyist Jack Abramoff; and Mark Foley, a Florida Republican, 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.

That late-breaking scandal gave Democrats an opening, and they responded by pouring money and labor into House races that had been seen safe for Republicans, expanding the battlefield.

One of Republicans' earliest casualties came in Indiana, where Rep. John Hostettler was defeated by Brad Ellsworth, a sheriff who praised his credentials as a conservative Democrat who opposes abortion and gun control.

Ellsworth's victory was, in part, a tribute to the wisdom of Democrats' strategy in recruiting candidates for the midterms: In many Republican-leaning districts, Emanuel sought out more conservative and moderate Democrats he thought more likely to win - even though that strategy riled some party activists by shunning liberals.

Also in Indiana, two other Republican incumbents who were top targets of the Democrats - Chris Chocola and Mike Sodrel - lost to Democratic challengers. In New England, Chris Murphy, a Democrat, was declared the winner in a race against Rep. Nancy Johnson, a moderate Republican, and Charles Bass in New Hampshire lost.

To the West, a Democrat won an Arizona seat left open by Jim Kolbe's retirement. In the South, Charles Taylor lost to a former NFL quarterback in North Carolina, and Clay Shaw failed to win re-election in Florida.

Other ethics woes were clearly taking their toll on the GOP: Democrats defeated Curt Weldon in Pennsylvania in the fallout from a federal corruption investigation, and Don Sherwood who admitted to a long-term affair with a younger woman who says he choked her.

In Kentucky, another Republican representative, Anne M. Northup, a veteran lawmaker who had withstood strong challenges in the past, lost narrowly to her Democratic opponent, John Yarmuth, a former Republican political candidate and publisher of an alternative newspaper in Louisville. Democrats had not counted on upsetting Northup in making their calculation for a House takeover.

Although polls showed many voters dissatisfied with Republicans, Republican Peter Roskam staved off a Democratic upset in Illinois, capturing a narrow victory over disabled Iraqi war veteran Tammy Duckworth. And in Georgia, two Democratic incumbents - John Barrow and Jim Marshall - were in tight races, though they were among only a few party lawmakers who were considered in danger of defeat.

Janet Hook writes for the Los Angeles Times. The New York Times and the Associated Press contributed to this article.

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