The largest upsets came in the upper chamber, where Republicans defeated two incumbents and a former vice president and forced a Dec. 7 runoff in Louisiana.
Although GOP freshman Senator Tim Hutchinson went down to defeat in Arkansas, the Republicans did oust Sen. Jean Carnahan in a closely fought election in Missouri and upset moderate Democratic Sen. Max Cleland in Georgia.
The morning hours also brought news of the defeat of former Vice President Walter Mondale who stepped in to run for the U.S. Senate from Minnesota after the death of Sen. Paul Wellstone.
The results guaranteed at least a one-seat majority in the chamber. Republican leaders called the election a confirmation of the president’s policies.
“I think it was a referendum on [Mr. Bush’s] leadership and he really showed it,” Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), who will reassume the post of Senate majority leader, told NBC’s Today. “The American people said, ‘Yes, we trust this man and we want to have a Congress that will work with him and will get some things done.'”
The losses left many Democrats stunned.
“I’m shocked, shocked,” Democratic Sen. Frank Lautenberg, who jumped in the race only a month ago after scandal-plagued Sen. Robert Torricelli dropped out, told NBC’s Today show. “And I can’t understand why because I truly believe that the agenda that we have is more appropriate for the citizens across the country.”
Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (S.D.) said the losses were a test of the mettle of the Democratic Party.
“There are times when Republicans have been written off because they’ve taken such a beating in the polls only to come back from the ashes and grow stronger, and there’s no doubt in my mind that’s exactly what’s going to happen here,” Daschle told ABC’s Good Morning America.
In the House, Republicans had won 227 seats by midmorning Wednesday and were leading in a newly created Colorado district. If they win there, that would give President Bush’s party five more seats than they currently have and a nine-vote majority in the next Congress.
It was only the fourth time since Abraham Lincoln, that the president’s party gained seats in the House in a mid-term election.
Some Democrats, stung by the loss of several incumbents, said it may be time for new leadership in the House and discussed the idea of Minority Leader Dick Gephardt (D-Mo.) stepping down.
“It’s obvious that we need some fresh faces and in some cases fresh ideas,” Tennessee Rep. Harold Ford said on Don Imus’ nationally syndicated radio show. He added that some Democrats were asking “pretty tough questions” about the party’s leadership.
But most observers pointed to the aggressive campaign efforts of the president for the major Republican victory. President Bush helped raise more than $180 million for candidates and spent much of the last two weeks campaigning in areas thought to be competitive.
Late Wednesday, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said the president was happy with the effort and felt it had helped in several key races.
“I think it’s very fair to say that a good portion of the results and history being made is attributable to the president’s popularity and his hard work,” Fleischer told reporters. “The president played a very constructive role in helping to break history.”
Terry McAuliffe, the chairman of the Democratic Party, stressed that the results indicated a victory that was “tactical, not ideological.” He added he felt victories in several gubernatorial races would help strengthen the party ahead of its efforts to unseat Mr. Bush in the 2004 elections.