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In a sign of trouble for Republicans, Rep. John Hostettler lost his re-election bid Tuesday in Indiana, while several other GOP congressmen struggled to fend off equally fierce Democratic challenges rooted in disenchantment with a war, a president and scandal on Capitol Hill.
“I’d rather be us than them,” Rep. Rahm Emanuel, the head of the House Democrats’ campaign effort, said just after the first polls closed as Democrats battled to win control of the House and end the GOP’s dozen-year rein.
In southwestern Indiana, Democrat Brad Ellsworth, a county sheriff, ousted Hostettler, a leading voice for social conservatives who was first elected in the 1994 GOP takeover of the House. Republican Reps. Mike Sodrel and Chris Chocola also fought to hold on to their Indiana seats, as did Anne Northup and Ron Lewis in Kentucky.
“It’s a tight, tight race,” said Sodrel, who was running against Democrat Baron Hill, a former congressmen, for the third time in as many elections. “I think we did everything we should’ve done.”
Other incumbents from both parties easily won re-election in noncompetitive districts in those two states, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and Virginia.
Voters also put Vermont’s only House seat squarely in the Democratic column, electing Democrat Peter Welch to replace Rep. Bernard Sanders, an independent who sided with Democrats and won a Senate seat on Tuesday.
With a message of change, Democrats sought to pick up 15 seats to reclaim power after 12 years in the minority and clear the way for Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California to become the first female speaker of the House.
Republicans, in turn, worked to extend their grip on the House for another two years Ã¢â‚¬â€ the last of Bush’s presidency Ã¢â‚¬â€ despite a sour environment for the president and the GOP in control of both houses of Congress.
Scandals, the war and overall anger toward Bush appeared to drive voters to the Democrats, according to surveys by The Associated Press and the television networks of voters as they left voting places. Several traditionally hard-fought demographic groups were choosing Democrats, including independents, moderates, the middle class and suburban women.
Those early exit polls also showed that three in four voters said corruption was very important to their vote, and they tended to vote Democratic. In a sign of a dispirited GOP base, most white evangelicals said corruption was very important to their vote Ã¢â‚¬â€ and almost a third of them turned to the Democrats.
The war in Iraq and Bush’s unpopularity appeared to hurt Republicans almost as much as the troubles on Capitol Hill.
Two out of three voters called the war very important to them and said they leaned toward the Democrats, while six in ten voters said they disapproved of the war. About the same number said they were dissatisfied with the president Ã¢â‚¬â€ and they were far more likely to vote Democratic.
Additionally, eight in ten voters called the economy very important to their House vote, and those who said it was extremely important Ã¢â‚¬â€ about four in ten voters Ã¢â‚¬â€ turned to Democrats.
All 435 House seats were on the ballot, and most incumbents were headed toward easy re-election. The magic number was 218 seats for a majority. The current lineup: 229 Republicans, 201 Democrats, one independent who lines up with the Democrats for organizational purposes, and four vacancies, three of them in seats formerly held by Republicans.
The fight for control came down to 50 or so seats, nearly half of them in a string stretching from Connecticut through New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky. All were in Republican hands, a blend of seats coming open and incumbents in trouble.
For months, national surveys have showed Democrats favored over Republicans by margins unseen since 1990 as voters have grown restless with the Bush administration and seemingly more ready for an end to one-party rule on Capitol Hill.
American casualties and costs have climbed in Iraq, and public support for the war has fallen, as have approval ratings for Congress along with the president.
Scandals also have dogged the GOP. Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, was charged with participating in a campaign finance scheme, and he resigned from the House. Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, resigned, too, after pleading guilty in the Jack Abramoff influence-peddling investigation. A month before the election, Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla., resigned when it was disclosed that he had sent sexually explicit electronic communications to former congressional pages.
Through it all, Democrats cast the race as a national referendum on Bush and Iraq, accusing Republicans of walking in lockstep with the president and rubber stamping his policies.
Republicans insisted the elections came down to choices between individual candidates from coast to coast Ã¢â‚¬â€ and that Democrats were liberals who would raise taxes, flee from Iraq and be soft on terrorists.
Initially, Democrats targeted GOP-held seats left open by retiring Republicans as well as districts where Bush won by close margins in 2004 Ã¢â‚¬â€ many in the Northeast and Midwest. In recent weeks, Democrats have been able to expand the battlefield, making plays for seats long in Republican hands, such as in Wyoming and Idaho.
The GOP, defending its majority, made serious bids for only a handful of Democratic-held seats, including two districts in Georgia that the Republican legislature redrew to make more hospitable to the GOP.
As the 2006 midterm election cycle began, Republicans were optimistic that they would be able to extend their reign because they had limited the number of GOP retirements, leaving fewer open seats that would be targets for Democrats.
Then violence increased in Iraq and scandals erupted in the House Ã¢â‚¬â€ knocking the GOP off course.
Copyright Ã‚Â© 2006 The Associated Press