WASHINGTON – Voters put the Republican congressional majority and a multitude of new voting equipment to the test Tuesday in an election that defined the balance of power for the rest of George W. Bush’s presidency.
Both parties hustled to get their supporters out in high-stakes contests across the country, Democrats appealing one more time for change, and appearing confident the mood was on their side.
Republicans conceded nothing as their vaunted get-out-the-vote machine swung into motion.
About a third of voters were using new equipment, and problems in several states were reported right out of the gate. The government deployed a record number of poll watchers to the many competitive races across the country.
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.
In Delaware County, Indiana, officials planned to seek a court order to extend voting after an apparent computer error prevented voters from casting ballots in 75 precincts.
Florida officials, working to avoid a repeat of the vote-counting debacle of 2000, fielded extra voting machines, paper ballots and poll workers.
In the Jacksonville suburb of Orange Park, Florida, voters were forced to use paper ballots after an electronic machine broke.
Voting at sunrise, Bush switched from partisan campaigner to democracy’s cheerleader as he implored Americans of all political leanings to cast ballots.
“We live in a free society and our government is only as good as the willingness of our people to participate,” Bush said, his wife, Laura, at his side and an “I voted” sticker on the lapel of his brown suede jacket.
“Therefore, 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.”
Democratic Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York seconded her party’s call for change, with one qualification.
“I voted for change, except for me,” she said, casting her ballot with her husband, Bill, the former president, in Chappaqua, New York.
In Tennessee, where Republican Bob Corker and Democrat Harold Ford Jr. were in a pitched battle for a Senate seat, even a spotty rain made Corker edgy.
“Any candidate doesn’t like to see rain,” Corker said, greeting supporters on a damp Tuesday morning in Kingsport. “You don’t know what kind of variables that brings into it.”
At stake in the midterm election were all 435 House seats, 33 in the Senate, 36 races for governor, ballot measures on gay marriage, embryonic stem cell research, the minimum wage and more — plus the overarching fate of President Bush’s agenda in the last two years of his presidency.
Democrats hoped finally to answer the rout that drove them from legislative power in 1994. Even their opponents conceded Democrats were certain to make gains and, despite brave words for public consumption, Republicans worried that control of the House would slip from their hands.
Even Senate control was up in the air, but a tougher climb for Democrats.
Unsurprisingly, the chairmen of the Democratic and Republican parties talked optimistically as voters went to the polls Tuesday.
“I believe we’re going to defy the experts and maintain our majority in the House and the Senate,” GOP Chairman Ken Mehlman said on CBS’s “The Early Show.”
Countered Howard Dean, his Democratic opposite number: “If you want change, we can give you change.”
That’s just what 60-year-old Ron Bowman, a Democrat from Windsor, Connecticut, had on his mind when he went out to vote first thing Tuesday.
“It was a chance for a change,” he said, after casting his ballot for Democratic senatorial candidate Ned Lamont over incumbent Sen. Joe Lieberman, running as an independent.
Another voter who echoed Bowman’s sentiment, Shirley Swanson of Windsor, said that she, too, voted for Lamont. “He’s not Lieberman. Joe isn’t listening to us,” she said.
In Texas, Bush finished a restrained five-day round of campaigning mostly in GOP strongholds around the country. His presence on the stump was a mixed blessing for candidates attracted to the attention and fundraising prowess generated by a president but nervous about being associated too closely — or even seen with — an unpopular leader.
Charlie Crist, a Republican running to succeed Bush’s brother Jeb as Florida governor, bailed from a planned appearance with Bush in a safely Republican section of the Panhandle, an embarrassing snub on the eve of voting.
Bush gamely pressed on with lacerating attacks on Democrats at that Pensacola rally of 7,000 loud supporters. “The Democrat philosophy is this: If it breathes, tax it, and if it stops breathing, find its children and tax them,” Bush shouted.
Former President Clinton responded sharply in kind: “They can’t run anything right,” he said, taunting Republicans about Iraq, Hurricane Katrina recovery and scandal in Washington.
Democrats needed to gain 15 House seats or six in the Senate to form a majority, a development that would give them a stronger voice against a war that has cost more than 2,800 U.S. lives and has come to be seen by most Americans as misbegotten.
Sharply critical of Bush’s prosecution of the war throughout the campaign, Democrats nevertheless lack a common position on how to get the U.S. out.
Republicans have been the acknowledged champions at getting supporters out to polling stations, a critical skill in midterm elections when turnout is typically low, around 40 percent, and one that heightened suspense over which party would hold the levers of power at the end of the counting.
Evangelical conservatives are the foundation of that mobilization and motivation drive, but their own enthusiasm was in question as they faced the prospect of a president too politically weak to take forward their agenda and looked back on a campaign tainted by the congressional page sex scandal and more.
Even so, some final opinion polls indicated a tightening race; others suggested the Democrats were still far in front in national sentiment.
At least two dozen Republican House seats were at risk. Among GOP-held open seats, those in Arizona, Colorado, New York, Ohio and Iowa seemed most vulnerable. Republican Reps. John Hostettler, Chris Chocola and Mike Sodrel of Indiana; Charles Taylor of North Carolina; Curt Weldon, Don Sherwood and Melissa Hart of Pennsylvania; and Charles Bass of New Hampshire were in particularly difficult re-election struggles.
In Senate races, Republican incumbents Mike DeWine in Ohio and Rick Santorum in Pennsylvania appeared in deepest trouble; Sens. Lincoln Chafee in Rhode Island and Conrad Burns in Montana somewhat less so.
Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, in line to become the first woman House speaker in history if Democrats win, was in Washington after a weekend of campaigning for candidates in Pennsylvania and Connecticut.