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Talking war and change, Democrats challenge GOP for control of Congress, governorships

WASHINGTON — Democrats challenged Republicans for control of Congress for President Bush’s final two years in office Tuesday in elections shadowed by war in Iraq and scandal at home. Thirty-six states elected governors, from Maine to California.
    All 435 House seats were on the ballot along with 33 Senate races, elections that Democrats sought to make a referendum on the president’s handling of the war, the economy and more.
    Voters also filled state legislative seats and decided hundreds of statewide ballot initiatives on issues ranging from proposed bans on gay marriage to increases in the minimum wage.
    Glitches delayed balloting in dozens of Indiana and Ohio precincts, and Illinois officials were swamped with calls from voters complaining that poll workers did not know how to operate new electronic equipment. Voting machine malfunctions forced officials in Indiana to delay calling statewide races until 8:40 p.m. EST while in Pennsylvania, Lebanon County extended polling hours because of machine problems.
    Overall, the Justice Department said polling complaints were down slightly from 2004 by early afternoon.
    Democratic Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, running for re-election with one eye on the 2008 presidential race, voiced her party’s campaign mantra, with one qualification.
    ‘‘I voted for change, except for me,’’ she said, casting her ballot with husband Bill, the former president, in Chappaqua, N.Y.
    Bush, who had campaigned hard for GOP lawmakers up to the end, switched to civics cheerleader after voting in Texas.
    With wife Laura at his side and an ‘‘I voted’’ sticker on his jacket lapel, he said, ‘‘No matter what your party affiliation or if you don’t have a party affiliation, do your duty, cast your ballot and let your voice be heard.’’
    Congressional Democrats, locked out of power for most of the past dozen years, needed gains of 15 seats in the House and six in the Senate to gain majorities that would let them restrain Bush’s conservative agenda through the rest of his term.
    The president campaigned energetically to prevent it, primarily by raising money for GOP candidates. He brought in $193 million at about 90 fundraisers, most of them party events in Washington or closed candidate receptions. Only at the last did he turn to traditional open campaign rallies, jetting to 15 cities in the final 11 days.
    With Bush’s approval ratings low and the Iraq war unpopular, Republicans conceded in advance that Democrats would gain at least some seats in Congress as well as in statehouses across the country.
    Democrats campaigned on a platform of change, beginning at the top. Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California was in line to become the nation’s first female House speaker if her party gained a majority.
    Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., was assured of re-election to his 11th term in Illinois. But his tenure as the longest-serving Republican speaker in decades was at risk.
    Of the 33 Senate races on the ballot, 17 were for seats occupied by Democrats and 15 by Republicans, with one held by an independent. But that masked the real story: In both houses, nearly all the competitive seats were in GOP hands and Democrats were on the offensive.
    Republican Sens. Mike DeWine of Ohio, Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, Jim Talent of Missouri and Conrad Burns of Montana struggled all fall against difficult challenges. The Tennessee seat vacated by retiring Majority Leader Bill Frist was also hotly contested.
    Democrats had hopes in Virginia, where Sen. George Allen looked for a second term. Republicans poured money into Maryland and Michigan in the campaign’s closing days, hoping to spring upsets and offset expected losses elsewhere.
    Scandal complicated the campaign for Republicans, from the months-long corruption investigation spawned by lobbyist Jack Abramoff to the revelation that former Rep. Mark Foley had sent sexually explicit computer messages to teenage congressional pages.
    History worked against the GOP, 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.
    Among governorships, New York, Ohio and Massachusetts were among the likeliest to swing Democratic, with incumbent Republican governors stepping down in each.
    Inevitably, the stirrings of the next campaign were visible in this one. Sen. John McCain of Arizona traveled widely this fall, seeking a head start among Republicans looking at the 2008 presidential race. Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., who recently said he was considering a 2008 candidacy, did likewise.
    ———
    Republicans won control of the House and Senate in a 1994 landslide. They have held on since, with the notable exception of 19 months in 2001 and 2002 after Sen. Jim Jeffords’ switched from Republican to independent. That delivered a majority to the Democrats, but they surrendered it to at the polls in 2002.
    Republicans held 28 governorships, compared with 22 for Democrats, as Election Day 2006 dawned.
    It was by far the costliest campaign in American history, more than $1.4 billion spent by candidates, parties and outside interest groups. Much of the money went to television commercials that attacked one candidate or another — a campaign staple that strategists in both parties said was effective, even though voters said the ads were offensive.
    Apart from the candidates themselves, no one had more at stake than the two political parties, and they spent an estimated $225 million on congressional races.
    The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spent about $64 million in 56 races. Its Republican counterpart spent more than $70 million on 52 races.

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