Democrats are on pace to gain about 20 seats in the House of Representatives, handing Nancy Pelosi the most commanding majority of any Democratic speaker in a generation — and providing President-elect Barack Obama a secure launching pad for his legislative agenda.
With about two-thirds of House races decided, Democrats are poised to increase their edge over the House’s demoralized and shrinking GOP minority to about 70 votes.
If trends hold, that would give the party its greatest majority since the early ‘90s — a lead so large even a 2010 GOP tidal wave comparable to the party’s 1994 54-seat gain wouldn’t be enough to take back control of the House.
It comes after Democrats’ 30-seat pick-up in 2006, representing the first time in 75 years Democrats have seen such large gains in back-to-back cycles.
"It's the night we have been waiting for," said Pelosi, a California Democrat. "This will be a wave upon a wave.”
Yet the gains, while significant, seem likely to fall short of the 30-plus increase many strategists predicted, with a half-dozen Democratic incumbents facing unexpectedly tough re-election battles.
Democrats, who struggled for years to match GOP fund raising, outspent Republicans, with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee pouring $76 million into races compared to the National Republican Congressional Committee’s $24 million.
Even before the polls closed, many Republicans questioned their party’s direction and called for a new game plan that is more responsive to voters’ desire for change and economic stability.
“This is a referendum on Bush and McCain,” said Billy Boylston, a legislative assistant to Rep. Ted Poe (R-TX), who was easily re-elected. “I think it is a new start for the Republican Party…. Like the housing market, you have to find the bottom and then you rebuild.”
Retiring Virginia Republican Congressman Tom Davis said Tuesday that the GOP will have to “retool” after the election because it has become “a white, rural, regional party.”
“We'll have to see what happens, but I suspect in urban areas across the country, Democrats will continue to make gains that they've made the last decade,” Davis said during an interview on MSNBC.
A few hours later, came word that Davis had been replaced by Democrat Gerald Connolly, a former chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors.
It was a bad night for the GOP’s hobbled herd of moderates.
Democrat Jim Himes picked off longtime Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), the last northeastern Republican in the House. Michael Sachse, spokesman for Himes, said the Iraq war and the economy undid Shays — themes Democrats struck in races from coast to coast.
“We’ve been talking about the economy since the beginning of the campaign,” he said. “It was the voters’ No. 1 issue and they know that Jim is the one focused on it,” he said. Shays' "position on the economy and the war were too catastrophically bad.
A pair of Florida incumbents, Reps. Ric Keller and Tom Feeney, lost decisively, while New York Republican John R. Kuhl, a second-term incumbent, fell to Democrat Eric Massa by a 51-to-49 percent margin.
Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Penn.) held off a tough challenge, as did his western Pennsylvania Democratic colleague Paul E. Kanjorski.
West Palm Beach Democrat Tim Mahoney, who admitted to having an affair with a former staffer, lost to Republican Tom Rooney.
Democrats lost a seat in Louisiana, where Don Cazayoux, a surprise winner in a special election this spring, lost to Republican Bill Cassidy in a conservative Baton Rouge area district. And the Democrats weren’t able to capitalize on the furor surrounding Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann&rquo;s suggestion that Obama holds “anti-American” views. Bachman held off a challenge from Democrat Elwyn Tinklenberg and will return to Washington in January for a second term.
Other Republicans didn’t fare so well. Reps. Phil English (R-Penn.), Marilyn Musgrave (R-Colo.) and Robin Hayes (R-N.C.) all went down to defeat.
New York Democrats won at least two seats left open by retiring Republicans: Dan Maffei defeated Republican Dale Sweetland in the race to fill the upstate seat vacated by Rep. Jim Walsh. Democrat Mike McMahon beat the GOP's Robert Straniere in the Staten Island district once represented by scandal-scarred Rep. Vito Fossella.
As vote-counting dragged into the early-morning hours Wednesday, the House GOP nervously eyed a handful of endangered Republicans, including Alaska Rep. Don Young, Michigan Rep. Tim Walberg and Nebraska Rep. Lee Terry.
Daniel W. Reilly and Sarah Abruzzese contributed to this report.