Republicans jumped to early leads in key congressional races in Indiana, Florida and Virginia as they pressed to wrest control of the House from Democrats on Tuesday and reached for a blowout to lopsided gains.
Democrats scratched to keep their majority, claiming a GOP open seat in Delaware and holding onto one threatened seat in Kentucky while they fought to keep another.
With GOP voters energized and tea party-fueled grass-roots anger apparent across the country, the GOP was positioned to capture the 40 seats they would need for House control and had shots at claiming another 20 or more. Demoralized Democrats, saddled with disillusionment in President Barack Obama and the sluggish economy, had solid chances to wrest fewer than a half-dozen seats from Republicans.
Republican Larry Bucshon was ahead for an open seat in Indiana vacated by Democratic Rep. Brad Ellsworth, while the first returns showed two of the state's Democratic incumbents, Baron Hill and Joe Donnelly, trailing in bids to hold onto their seats.
Across the country, freshman Democrats fought to survive. Outspoken liberal Rep. Alan Grayson was trailing badly in early returns in his Orlando-area swing district, while Rep. Tom Perriello was behind in his conservative Southside Virginia district.
In Kentucky, however, Rep. John Yarmuth won and Rep. Ben Chandler was battling to hold off his Republican challenger in a Lexington-area district targeted by the GOP.
In a bright spot for Democrats, John Carney handily beat Republican Glen Urquhart in the race to succeed GOP Rep. Mike Castle in Delaware's only House seat, which Castle left to pursue an unsuccessful Senate run.
"This thing is not over," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, the Democratic House campaign chief.
Voters went to the polls intensely worried about the economy and dissatisfied with the way the federal government is working. An Associated Press analysis of exit poll results found voters saying the economy eclipses any other issue as their top concern. They're also expressing dissatisfaction with Obama and Congress, and they don't have a favorable view of either political party.
In an ominous sign for Democrats, women -- who typically give them a large edge -- were about evenly split in House voting, and men were breaking decisively for Republicans.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California gathered with Democrats at a downtown hotel, her party bracing for a bloodbath -- the only question being how severe.
"We are not going back to the failed policies of the past," Pelosi said, exhorting Democrats to "go out there and continue to fight."
Blocks away, Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio, in line to claim Pelosi's job should his party make the expected gains, waited with GOP leaders, careful to avoid a party-like atmosphere at a time when voters appear fed up with both sides.
It was shaping up as a remarkable turnabout from 2008, when Obama helped propel Democrats to big gains in their House majority only two years after the 2006 wave that swept them to control. This year, few Democratic incumbents felt safe, least of all the 51 who claimed Republican seats over the last four years.
Strategists in both parties expected GOP successes that could rival the party's 1994 wave to power, which handed them 52 seats and control of the House for the first time in 40 years.
High unemployment and disillusionment with Obama and his allies in Congress posed seemingly insurmountable challenges for dozens of Democratic candidates in all regions of the country, from freshmen to the most powerful veterans.
Democrats now control the House by a 255-178 margin, with two vacancies. All 435 seats are up for grabs.
The GOP had some four-dozen Democratic freshmen and second-termers on the defense in conservative and swing districts and was targeting another roughly 30 Democrats once thought to be safe or relatively so, plus more than a dozen seats left open by Democratic retirements.
The GOP wasn't expecting a completely clean sweep. Strategists privately conceded that Democrats were likely to oust Republican Rep. Ahn "Joseph" Cao in New Orleans, and win Delaware's lone House seat, left open by GOP Rep. Mike Castle's unsuccessful Senate run. Democrats were also targeting Hawaii GOP Rep. Charles Djou, and holding out hope of picking up open seats in Miami and the Chicago suburbs.
House candidates and party committees raised and spent tons of campaign cash, and Democrats had a slight edge. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spent $145 million to bankroll its candidates, compared with $121 million shelled out by the National Republican Congressional Committee. That's nearly double what the Democratic campaign arm spent in the last election, and more than five times what the Republican counterpart did when the tables were turned.
GOP candidates poured a total of $419 million into their campaigns, while Democrats spent $421.5 million.
But Republican-allied outside groups skewed the playing field dramatically. They spent $189.5 million savaging Democratic candidates while independent groups skewering Republicans spent $89 million.