Republicans captured their first back-to-back majorities in the House in 66 years Wednesday and Speaker Newt Gingrich claimed a mandate for smaller government and lower taxes. Democrats picked off enough GOP freshmen to narrow his margin of control.
The GOP partly offset losses among its freshman class by capturing Southern seats vacated by veteran Democrats.
"It's pretty amazing, a truly historic moment," Gingrich told a cheering crowd in suburban Atlanta of his House colleagues' ability to withstand a landslide victory by President Clinton. He said the vote demonstrated "a desire by the country for comon sense change for a smaller government and decentralized power out of Washington and lower taxes."
Republicans won 220 seats and were leading in another five for 225; Democrats had won or were leading for 209 seats, which would be a gain of 11 seats. The current House split is 236 Republicans and 198 Democrats. The only independent, Bernard Sanders of Vermont, won re-election and generally votes with the Democrats.
Exit polls across the nation by Voter News Service, a consortium of The Associated Press and five television networks, showed that by a 51-45 margin, voters disapproved of Congress' performance under GOP leadership the past two years. By almost a 2-to-1 margin, those interviewed expressed a negative view of Gingrich.
"We cemented the majority tonight," said Rep. Bill Paxon, R-N.Y., chairman of the party's House campaign committee. "We will hold the House for the foreseeable future."
Democrats won 14 seats previously held by Republicans, eight of them freshmen and seven targeted by organized labor's expensive television ad campaign. Republicans defeated two incumbents and picked up nine open Democratic seats, seven of them in the South, but the Democrats successfully defended many more.
Indianapolis voters picked their first black representative, local township trustee Julia Carson, to keep Democratic control of the hotly contested seat of retiring Democrat Andy Jacobs with extensive help from organized labor.
Democrats needed a net gain of 18 seats to take control of the chamber and pinned their hopes on toppling GOP freshmen.
In North Carolina, freshmen Republicans Fred Heineman and David Funderburk, who rode into office behind Gingrich's "Contract With America" campaign in 1994, were turned out by Democrats David Price, a former congressman, and Bobby Etheridge. And in New Jersey, freshman Bill Martini lost to Democrat William Pascrell, the mayor of Paterson.
In New York, Democrat Carolyn McCarthy defeated freshman Republican Daniel Frisa in a race dominated by the issue of gun control. McCarthy's husband was killed in the 1993 Long Island Railroad massacre, and she took on Frisa after he voted to repeal a ban on assault weapons.
"All we were out to do was make something good come out of a horrible situation," McCarthy said in a victory speech. "I certainly have beaten the person I wanted to beat.... I have beaten the NRA" (National Rifle Association).
Another victim was Chicago Republican Michael Patrick Flanagan, who reached Congress two years ago by defeating indicted Democratic power Dan Rostenkowski. He was ousted by Democratic state Rep. Rod Blagojevich.
In Maine, former Portland Mayor Tom Allen, a Democrat, ousted Republican freshman James Longley. GOP freshmen Randy Tate, part of a GOP sweep in Washington two years ago, and Frank Cremeans of Ohio were turned out of office.Three-term Rep. Gary Franks, one of two black Republicans in the House, lost to Democrat James Maloney in western Connecticut. Two-term Republican Peter Blute lost in Massachusetts to Jim McGovern, a Democratic congressional aide.
With strong labor backing, former Cleveland Mayor Dennis Kucinich evicted two-term Republican Martin Hoke. And Rep. Nancy Johnson, R-Conn., chairman of the House ethics committee, was trailing after a campaign in which her Democratic opponent, Charlotte Koskoff, accused her of going easy on Gingrich in the ethics case against him.
Democrats also picked up two Wisconsin seats vacated by retiring Republicans, and one in Iowa.
One GOP freshman under assault, Ed Whitfield, held on to a western Kentucky district, where two years ago he became the first Republican ever sent to the House. And in one of the night's closest races Rep. Jon Fox, R-Pa., survived by just 10 votes out of 246,043 cast in suburban Philadelphia.
And in South Dakota's at-large seat, Republican John Thune captured a seat vacated by Democrat Tim Johnson. In Mississippi, 33-year-old GOP Senate aide Chip Pickering captured the seat of retiring Democratic veteran Sonny Montgomery. And former Republican Rep. Wes Watkins staged a comeback in Oklahoma to take a vacant Democratic seat.
Gingrich and House Democratic leader Dick Gephardt easily won re-election.
Track star Jim Ryun, former world record holder in the mile, won an open Republican House seat in Kansas to join other Republican athletes, football star J.C. Watts of Oklahoma and major league pitcher Jim Bunning of Kentucky, in the House.
Voters interviewed in exit polls across the country were splitting evenly between Democratic and Republican House candidates; only in the South did Republicans appear to have an edge.
GOP victories in the South expanded on their gains in the region two years ago and furthered the political realignment of a once solidly Democratic region.
Nearly one in ten voters told interviewers they decided whom to vote for only in the last three days. Of those, 56 percent chose Republicans.
In Kentucky, freshman Democrat Mike Ward was narrowly defeated in a Louisville-area district. Ten-term Democrat Harold Volkmer lost his Hannibal, Mo., district in a rematch with Republican Kenny Hulshof. Other Democratic incumbents in tough re-election battles included Reps. George Brown of California and Bill Orton of Utah.
In Missouri's bootheel, Jo Ann Emerson won the seat held by her deceased husband. She ran as an independent but is expected to join the Republicans.
In contrast to the 1994 elections that gave the GOP a majority, the anti-Washington fervor of two years ago was gone - replaced by satisfaction with a steady if not spectacular rate of economic growth.
And waking up after a 16-year nap, organized labor weighed in early, spending up to $35 million in attacking vulnerable Republicans with TV spots on Medicare, the environment and education.
In Texas, late redrawing of districts meant that some races in which no candidate got a majority would be forced into runoffs on Dec. 10. They included the Houston-area district of Democratic freshman Ken Bentsen, Republican freshman Steve Stockman in the eastern part of the state, and the Eighth District, where two Republicans - state Rep. Kevin Brady and physician Gene Fontenot - were the survivors from Tuesday.