WASHINGTON – A triumphant phalanx of conservative candidates paved the way as Republicans used Election Day to strengthen their grip on Congress and vanquish one of the Democrats' most visible national leaders.
As undecided races in the House and Senate dwindled to a handful, both chambers' GOP leaders rejoiced in their added muscle. In the next Congress, Republicans will have at least 231 seats and probably one more for what would be a three-seat pickup in the 435-member House.
The GOP will control the new Senate 55-44 plus a Democratic-leaning independent, a four-seat gain.
"Last night was a monumental victory for the United States Senate," said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (search), R-Tenn.
Frist, who will still need to muster 60 votes to fend off Democratic filibusters that can derail bills, spoke during a whirlwind one-day victory lap through four of the five southern states where Republicans grabbed seats from retiring Senate Democrats.
The GOP's favorite scalp was that of Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (search) of South Dakota, the 18-year Senate veteran and leading Democratic voice whom Republicans disparaged for obstructing their agenda. Former Rep. John Thune (search), R-S.D., made Daschle the only Senate incumbent to lose Tuesday, ousting him by fewer than 4,600 votes and leaving his party's senators without a high-profile leader. Democrats were left searching for explanations.
"We did everything within our control to be in a position to win," said Sen. Jon Corzine, D-N.J., who led his party's Senate campaign apparatus. "What we could not control was a map which was tilted decidedly in our opponent's direction and an unexpectedly strong showing by President Bush."
Sen. Harry Reid (search), D-Nev., Daschle's No. 2, easily won re-election and prepared to announce his own run for the top job. Though not viewed as telegenic or inspiring, Reid is seen by many colleagues as a hard worker who has earned the chance. If a challenge does come, the Democrat most often mentioned was Sen. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut.
As for the Democrats' next move, Gary Jacobson, a political scientist at the University of California at San Diego who studies Congress, said: "They do some navel gazing for a while and they figure out how to reverse things."
Congressional Republicans not only increased in number but are a more conservative lot, chiefly by consolidating their hold on Southern and other GOP-leaning states.
Among the newly minted GOP lawmakers with clear conservative tastes were incoming Sens. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and Jim DeMint of South Carolina, and Reps.-elect Ted Poe and Louis Gohmert of Texas. Most Democratic pickups in the House and Senate came in Democratic-leaning states and districts.
"There's no question, the red states get redder and the blue states get bluer," said Stephen Moore, president of the conservative Club for Growth.
Underscoring the conservative tide, the National Rifle Association (search) said 14 of the 18 Senate candidates and 241 of the 251 House candidates it endorsed had won. It circulated long lists of incoming House and Senate freshmen it considered "pro-gun."
Sen. Lincoln Chafee, R-R.I., perhaps the Senate's most moderate Republican, told The Providence Journal that he might switch parties if President Bush were re-elected. "I'm not ruling it out," he said.
Chafee spokesman Stephen Hourahan on Wednesday seemed to try tamp down rumblings of a switch, saying of his boss, "He has no intention of making an announcement of anything in the near future."
Moderate Republicans took note of what happened and began staking out their territory.
The likely new chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee (search), moderate Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., warned the White House against trying to fill any upcoming Supreme Court vacancies with judges who would oppose abortion rights or invite Democrats to block them for being too conservative.
"I would expect the president to be mindful of the considerations which I am mentioning," said Specter, who was elected Tuesday to a fifth six-year term.
The Republican Main Street Partnership, an organization of GOP centrists, issued a statement praising Bush's victory but reminding colleagues that its members will continue supporting efforts to clean the environment.
"We are proud to work with President Bush and will continue to strive to achieve balance for the priorities of all Americans," the partnership said in a statement.
And moderate Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, praised Bush's strong leadership and said she hoped he "will reach out to all Americans to unite our nation."