Jim Webb's squeaker win over incumbent Senator George Allen gave Democrats their 51st seat in the 100-seat Senate, an astonishing turnabout at the hands of voters unhappy with Republican scandal and unabated violence in Iraq. Allen was the sixth Republican incumbent senator defeated in Tuesday's elections.
The Senate had teetered at 50 Democrats, 49 Republicans for most of Wednesday, with Virginia hanging in the balance. Webb's victory ended Republican hopes of eking out a 50-50 split, with Vice President Dick Cheney wielding tie-breaking authority.
The Associated Press contacted election officials in all 134 localities where voting occurred, obtaining updated numbers Wednesday. About half the localities said they had completed their postelection canvassing and nearly all had counted outstanding absentees. Most were expected to be finished by Friday.
The new AP count showed Webb with 1,172,538 votes and Allen with 1,165,302, a difference of 7,236. Virginia has had two statewide vote recounts in modern history, but both resulted in vote changes of no more than a few hundred votes.
An adviser to Allen, speaking on condition of anonymity because his boss had not formally decided to end the campaign, said the senator wanted to wait until most of canvassing was completed before announcing his decision, possibly by Thursday evening.
The adviser said that Allen was disinclined to request a recount if the final vote spread was similar to that of election night.
In an all-around banner election year for Democrats, voters frustrated about the direction of the country toppled Republicans at all levels of government in a searing rebuke of the status quo.
"It was a thumpin'" President Bush told reporters at a White House news conference. "It's clear the Democrat Party had a good night."
"Actually, I thought we were going to do fine yesterday," Mr. Bush said. "Shows what I know."
The president, who spoke of spending his political capital after his re-election triumph two years ago, acknowledged, "As the head of the Republican Party, I share a large part of the responsibility."
With power on Capitol Hill tilting, Mr. Bush faced the reality of at least half of Congress in the opposition's hands for the final two years of his presidency. He announced that, as Democrats have urged.
The war in Iraq, scandals in Congress and declining support for Mr. Bush and Republicans on Capitol Hill defined the battle for House and Senate control, with the public embracing the Democrats' call for change to end a decade of one-party rule in Washington.
"This new Democratic majority has heard the voices of the American people," said Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the California Democrat in line to become the nation's first female speaker, adding that Americans placed their trust in Democrats. "We will honor that trust. We will not disappoint."
With the GOP booted from power after a 12-year House reign, lame-duck Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., announced he will not run for leader of House Republicans when Democrats take control in January.
"Obviously I wish my party had won," Hastert said in a statement that added he intends to return to the "full-time task" of representing his Illinois constituents.
Her position atop the House all but assured, Pelosi said it may take "a couple of weeks" to determine the final division of power in the Senate but said that no matter the outcome "the numbers picked up by the Senate bode very well" for the Democratic agenda.
By early afternoon, Democrats had captured 50 Senate seats, including Montana, and Republicans held 49. The battle for power came down to Virginia.
"The votes are in and we won," Webb declared, claiming victory anyway, setting a transition team in motion and calling himself senator-elect.
But with so much on the line and a margin so thin, Allen refused to concede defeat.
"The conclusion of the canvass will be the final official results," said Ed Gillespie, the former Republican National Committee chairman and adviser to Allen, a swaggering cowboy boot-wearing former Virginia governor who favors football metaphors.
CBS News reports Virginia had a "very high" number of absentee ballots — more than 114,000 sent out, with usually 80 percent returned — the highest for a midterm election there since 1994, according to Virginia's Secretary of State office. The absentee ballots were counted within the results reported Tuesday. The office said there are no outstanding absentee ballots and none from overseas or military personnel.
Democrats could end up with a one-seat majority, or the Senate could be tied at 50-50 with Vice President Dick Cheney the deciding vote.
That meant the election of 48 Democratic senators as well as two Democratic-voting independents — Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and Bernie Sanders of Vermont.
Lieberman, according to CBS News correspondent Gloria Borger stands to gain power within the Senate, despite losing the Democratic primary in his re-election campaign. "If the congressional centrists are looking for a leader, it might be Joe Lieberman. The newly Independent senator could be courted by both Republicans and Democrats looking for votes," Borger said.
However, the election results pose a difficult challenge for the president.
"The challenge is that almost all moderate Republicans in the House and even some in the Senate are wiped out," said CBS News political consultant Norm Ornstein. "If you move to the middle, there are some Republicans you'll have to convince to move with you. Bush will also have to work with Democratic leaders who don't like him and don't trust him. And the feeling is mutual."
Despite the Democrats' victory, Pelosi also faces a tough job.
"These Democrats that were elected last night are conservative Democrats. They are not like some of the liberal firebrands in the House right now," CBS News chief Washington correspondent Bob Schieffer said. "So she has to bring those two groups together and make them a cohesive force, or else what you will see is a Republican president reaching out to the conservative Democrats and forming coalitions."
Senate Democrats cheered the defeat of Republican senators in Ohio, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania and Montana — and inched toward seizing Virginia, and with it the reins of the Senate.
"This, of course, has been a very exciting time for us," said Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada.
After an overnight vote count in Montana, Democrat Jon Tester rode to victory over Burns, a three-term senator whose campaign was shadowed by a series of self-made missteps and his ties to Jack Abramoff, the disgraced lobbyist at the center of an influence-peddling investigation.
Tester held a lead of less than 3,000 votes over Burns with all precincts reported, according to CBS News estimates.
"One hundred thousand miles and 15 hours later, here we did it," said Tester, a flat top-wearing organic farmer who lost three fingers in a meat grinder.
In the House, Democrats won 230 seats, putting them on track for a 30-seat gain if trends held in remaining unsettled races, CBS News estimates.
Without losing any seats of their own, Democrats captured 28 GOP-held seats. The party won in every region of the country and hoped to strengthen their majority by besting Republican incumbents in eight races that were too close to call.
Aside from gains in Congress,to give them a majority of top state jobs — 28 — for the first time in a dozen years. New York, Ohio, Massachusetts, Colorado, Maryland and Arkansas went into the Democratic column.
In down-ballot races, Democrats gained a decisive edge in state legislatures, taking control of a number of bodies and solidifying their hold on others. With the wins, Democrats will be in a better position to shape state policy agendas and will play a key role in drawing Congressional districts.
According to CBS News exit polls: