WASHINGTON – Poised to defy history, Republicans raced to key early victories in Tuesday’s battle for control of Congress. They held the House of Representatives and threatened to win control of the Senate.
In one major win for the Grand Old Party – and for President Bush – Republican Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida won his hard-fought campaign for a second term over Democrat Bill McBride, a Tampa lawyer.
“The president is delighted,” said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer. “He views it as a big, huge victory and he’s very proud of his brother.”
And in the first dramatic upset of the day, Republicans took a Senate seat in Georgia away from the Democrats and held seats in New Hampshire and North Carolina against hard-fought challenges. Together with wins in key House and governors’ contests, those early victories suggested that Republicans might be on the verge of historic gains.
“I see a Republican breeze blowing,” said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who was not up for re-election Tuesday.
In Georgia, Republican Rep. Saxby Chambliss defeated Democratic Sen. Max Cleland. In North Carolina, former Republican Cabinet Secretary Elizabeth Dole beat Democrat Erskine Bowles, a former White House chief of staff for President Clinton. And in New Hampshire, Republican Rep. John Sununu beat Democratic Gov. Jeanne Shaheen, keeping a tossup seat in the GOP column.
Republicans also defied projections by picking up some surprising early gains in several governorships.
In Maryland, Republican Rep. Bob Ehrlich defeated Democratic Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, daughter of the late Sen. Robert F. Kennedy. Ehrlich is the first Republican to win Maryland’s governorship since Spiro T. Agnew in 1966.
In South Carolina, Republican former U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford ousted Democratic Gov. Jim Hodges. In Massachusetts, Republican Mitt Romney, the former Olympics organizer, defeated Democratic state Treasurer Shannon O’Brien.
But Democrats gained governors’ mansions in at least two states.
In Illinois, Democratic Rep. Rod Blagojevich beat Republican Attorney General Jim Ryan. And in Pennsylvania, Democrat Ed Rendell, a former mayor of Philadelphia, triumphed over Republican Attorney General Mike Fisher.
All 435 House seats were up for grabs Tuesday, as were 34 of the 100 Senate seats and 36 of the 50 governorships.
In the House, Republicans claimed an early, important victory with the re-election of Rep. Anne Northrup of Louisville, Ky., over Democratic challenger Jack Conway.
The race was one of the most competitive in the nation, with Democrats needing to win it and every one of about 14 tossup contests to have a chance of winning back a majority of the House.
After voting in Texas, President Bush flashed a thumbs up and returned to the White House to celebrate his wedding anniversary and see if his frenetic rush of campaigning paid off for Republicans.
The president was joined for dinner by top Republicans, all eager to buck the tide of history that for nearly 60 years has eroded seats in Congress held by the parties of presidents in their first midterm elections. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Democrats gained seats in 1934, but since then each of 10 presidents has watched his party lose seats in the House. The average loss: 27.
Only three of those 10 managed to win seats in the Senate in their first mid-term elections _ John Kennedy in 1962, Richard Nixon in 1970 and Ronald Reagan in 1982.