War weary voters vent frustration at the polls

Weary of war and angry at the president who started it, Americans vented their frustration in the voting booth Tuesday. It was a clear call for change aimed at President Bush and a Republican Congress that has marched in step behind the commander in chief.

Republicans worried that the sour mood of voters in midterm elections would cost them control of the House after 12 years and possibly the Senate. Bush insisted to the end that Republicans would defy the odds and remain in charge. But exit polls of voters gave Republicans little to cheer about.

Six years into Bush’s term, the election stood as a referendum on his presidency, which has been weakened by high gasoline prices, economic insecurity and the government’s sluggish response to Hurricane Katrina. Far more voters said national issues mattered more than local issues in their House vote and a majority worried that the nation is seriously off on the wrong track.

A turnover in the House or Senate would give Democrats a big voice in setting the nation’s agenda and the power to challenge Bush’s conduct of the war. Democrats campaigned on a platform of change, from the top down. Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California would become the nation’s first female House speaker if Democrats gained a majority.

“I think regardless of the results, today is really a referendum on President Bush’s handing of the war in Iraq and whether we should bring the troops home,” said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass. “You’re going to see a movement and a sweep in the outcome. The issue is to what extent.”

While the war was a big problem for Republicans, scandal and corruption in Washington hurt them more. Three-fourths of voters questioned in exit polls said corruption was very important to their vote and they were more likely to vote Democratic.

Republicans lost ground with white evangelicals who are some of their most reliable supporters. Most of this group said corruption was very important in their vote and almost a third of them voted Democratic.

Bush’s name was not on any ballot but he framed the election as a yes-or-no decision on his handling of Iraq, now in its fourth year, and the war on terrorism. It was a risky roll of the dice for an unpopular president. Desperate to keep Democrats from power, Bush roamed the country and held about 90 fundraisers to collect more than $193 million for the GOP.

In the end, it was a bleak scorecard for Bush. Exit polls showed about six in 10 voters disapproved of the way he is handling his job. About six in 10 disapproved of the war and two-thirds said Iraq was an important issue and they were more inclined to vote for a Democrat.

Only a third said the war has improved America’s long-term security, down from almost half — 46 percent — in the 2004 national exit poll.

The election came at a particularly bad time for Bush. Americans went to the polls just days after a bloody October ended with 105 American service members killed — the fourth deadliest month since the war began.

Seizing on anxieties after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Bush and his Republican allies have played the national security card to their advantage in national elections in 2002 and 2004. They tried again this year but it didn’t appear to work.

About half of voters in exit polls didn’t give either party an advantage in keeping the nation safe. Those who said it was very important tended to split their vote.

While war and corruption hurt the GOP, history played a part, too.

Since World War II, the party in control of the White House has lost an average 31 House seats and six Senate seats in the second midterm election of a president’s tenure in office.


Terence Hunt has covered the White House for The Associated Press since the Reagan presidency.

Copyright © 2006 The Associated Press