WASHINGTON (AP) - Republicans turned aside crucial Democratic challenges in region after region Tuesday and appeared headed towards extending their eight-year control of the House of Representatives.
Democratic hopes of regaining the chamber dimmed as Republicans chalked up wins or were leading in many races earlier seen as toss-ups. Americans voted to fill all 435 House seats, but only a tenth of them were deemed to be competitive.
Democrats needed a net gain of seven seats to reclaim the control they lost in 1994. But as returns rolled in, it seemed likely they would miss the mark.
In a closely watched Kentucky contest, three-term Republican Rep. Anne Northup defeated Democrat Jack Conway. Republican Jeb Bradley defeated Democrat Martha Fuller Clark for an open New Hampshire in another hard fought race.
Republican Rep. Shelley Moore Capito won a second term in West Virginia, defeating Democratic challenger Jim Humphreys, a wealthy lawyer, in what was the most expensive congressional race in the country, with $9 million raised and spent.
Republican won two of four races that featured incumbents running against other incumbents - the result of a redistricting to reflect population changes. And Republican incumbents were leading in the other two such races.
Rep. Nancy Johnson, R-Conn., defeated Rep. Jim Maloney, D-Conn., and Rep. Charles Pickering, R-Miss., defeated Rep. Ronnie Shows, D-Miss.
However, Democrats appeared poised to pick up two seats in Maryland - one in Baltimore and one in the suburbs of Washington - and one in Tennessee, all formerly held by Republicans.
Democrats became less and less optimistic of making significant gains as the evening wore on. "Everyone here is accepting the fact that the House will stay Republican," said Robert Weiner, a former Clinton administration official who spoke with reporters at the Democratic National Committee headquarters.
Meanwhile, in a victory that was not a suprise, Katherine Harris, former Florida secretary of state and a GOP heroine for her role in the 2000 presidential election, coasted to election for a House seat in Florida representing the Sarasota area. President Bush called Harris and Northup to congratulate them and other winning Republicans.
House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., and Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., coasted to easy re-election.
Republicans were counting on Bush's popularity to help them keep the House, and he campaigned extensively for congressional Republicans.
Democrats had hoped history would repeat itself and inflict midterm losses on the president's party.
In other closely followed races, GOP businessman Chris Chocola took a strong early lead in an Indiana House district. Democratic Rep. Julia Carson opened a lead over her GOP challenger, Brose McVey, in another Indiana race.
Bush campaigned twice in both Kentucky and Indiana for the GOP candidates, including a final week visit.
In a Gulf Coast Florida race, Democratic Rep. Karen Thurmond was trailing Republican challenger Ginny Brown-Waite.
In the battle for three new seats in Georgia, two Democrats and one Republican were ahead.
While the president's party traditionally loses seats in mid-term elections, Democrats had to buck another national trend after picking up seats in three previous congressional elections - in 1996, 1998 and 2000. No party has gained seats in four successive elections since the 1930s.
While Bush and other leaders campaigned hard for House candidates in the closing days, chances of big gains by either party seemed slim.
The closely fought battle for control came down to just a dozen or so extremely competitive races. Democrats needed a net gain of seven seats to wrest majority control from the Republicans - a large order, even the most optimistic Democrats acknowledged.
Short of recapturing the chamber, a Democratic pickup or loss of several seats would have little effect on legislation.
One reason for the lack of expected changes: Most incumbents of both parties were protected when House districts were redrawn to reflect population changes reported in the 2000 Census.
Competing for voters' attention was a potential war with Iraq, terrorism fears and homeland security, corporate accounting scandals, a plunge in consumer confidence and an erratic stock market in which most Americans' retirement accounts have lost ground.
But none of these issues became a unifying national theme. Democrats were reluctant to take on the president on national security issues and sought to focus attention on domestic issues. Bush's popularity, which soared after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, still hovered in the low-to-mid 60s on Election Day.
In Ohio, voters had the choice of re-electing former Rep. James Traficant of Ohio - expelled from the House in July and serving eight years in federal prison on bribery and racketeering convictions - who was running as an independent from behind bars in Pennsylvania. Two other candidates, a Democrat and Republican, also sought the seat.
Voters in California filled the seat being vacated by Democrat Gary Condit, who became enmeshed in the investigation of a murdered congressional intern, Chandra Levy.
Both parties poured millions into the relatively few close contests, in many cases resorting to personal attacks. Republicans in Ohio used an image of a still-smoldering Ground Zero to suggest Democrat Tim Ryan was weak on homeland security. An image of the Washington-area sniper was used in a Democratic ad in a northern New Jersey race to criticize Republican Scott Garrett's pro-gun-ownership stance.
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