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When the lights went out

Voters hand Democrats control of Congress in a GOP power failure that ends 12 years of dominance. "We should humbly accept defeat" and "learn the right lessons," says one GOP House leader

When the lights went out

One hour before polls closed in Pennsylvania, Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) received a ninth-hour plug from a Democrat. Urban Family Council founder Bill Devlin sent an e-mail plea to Santorum supporters: "Polls close here in PA in an hour . . . let us be diligent in continuing our 24-hour prayer and fasting efforts; and diligent in getting the vote out for Rick Santorum thru calls and e-mails . . ."

Less than three hours later, CNN called the Pennsylvania race: Santorum, a two-term incumbent and the No. 3 Senate Republican, lost to Democratic opponent Bob Casey by 18 percentage points. Casey, the moderate son of a former Pennsylvania governor, is the first state Democrat elected to a full term in the Senate since 1962.

Santorum's early loss was a harbinger of the demoralizing night to come for Republicans. An hour after the senator conceded with his tearful family at his side, Republicans learned that Democrats had taken the House. Preliminary election results gave Democrats a 32-seat advantage, with some races still too close to call.

All eyes turned to the Senate, where the victory of Bob Corker in Tennessee was the only GOP bright spot. Republican liberal Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, moderate Mike DeWine of Ohio, and conservative Jim Talent of Missouri all lost. Montana Democrat Jon Tester won by a whisker over three-term incumbent Sen. Conrad Burns.

Senate control came down to Virginia, but both parties had to be patient. Republican incumbent Sen. George Allen, trailing Democratic opponent Jim Webb by about 7,000 votes, could ask for a full review of the vote tally-or concede. And that's just what he did 48 hours later.

With Democratic control of both houses, a new political reality settled in over Washington as Democrats rejoiced and Republicans reflected. A candid President Bush admitted to reporters what everyone knew about the election: "It was a thumpin'." He congratulated House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, who is set to become the new Speaker of the House, and offered to help her pick out drapes for her new office.

The president also warned: "The election does not mean that we are going to leave [Iraq]." Pelosi returned admonitions: She said voters want a change in the war in Iraq, and urged Bush to "listen to the voice of the people."

The winds of change blew quickly on the day after the GOP's blowout loss. Embattled Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld stepped down from his post, and Bush told reporters: "Secretary Rumsfeld and I agreed that sometimes it's necessary to have a fresh perspective" (see p. 24).

If the Nov. 7 elections proved anything, it's that a majority of Americans want a fresh perspective. According to exit polls, six in 10 voters said the war in Iraq hasn't improved the nation's long-term security, and they voted for Democrats by 3 to 1. Voters also cited concerns over scandal and corruption as key reasons for voting Democratic.

But despite predictions that disgruntled conservatives might not vote this year, the exit polls found that conservatives accounted for 32 percent of the vote, down only two points from 2004. Some 78 percent of surveyed conservatives voted for the Republicans in their House races.

Self-described born-again Christians made up about a quarter of this election's voters and supported Republicans 2 to 1. One-fourth of the voters also called themselves independents, and they backed Democrats over Republicans by about 20 points.

Conservative Christian leaders who encouraged evangelical "values voters" to get out and vote said the results were not surprising. Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, said the losses Republicans sustained are consistent with a historical trend dubbed the "six-year itch": The party holding the White House typically loses more than 30 House seats during elections in the president's second term.

"It's hard to buck historical trends," Land said, but he noted that some socially conservative initiatives made gains: Seven states easily passed marriage amendments banning gay marriage, and in some states the votes for banning gay marriage outstripped votes for Republican candidates.

In Wisconsin, where voters elected a Democratic senator, governor, and five congressmen, they also passed a gay marriage ban 59 percent to 41 percent. In Colorado, where Democrats took three out of four House seats and the governorship, voters also passed a marriage amendment and rejected domestic-partner benefits for homosexual couples by a margin of 53 percent to 46 percent.

"Traditional marriage did a lot better than Republicans," said Land. That trend highlights a widespread support for traditional marriage, according to Land, as well something important about "values voters": "Their loyalties are to their issues, not a party."

Facing such data, some Republicans are adopting a soul-searching tone and urging other party members to do the same.

Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), who is likely to run for House minority leader, said the GOP should "humbly accept defeat" and "learn the right lessons. . . . We did not just lose our majority, we lost our way."

Pence chastised his own party for breaking its 1994 "Contract with America" by straying from the principles of limited government, indulging in bloated federal spending, and racking up record national debt. Those GOP failures, he said, drove Republican voters away from the party. "I say the American people didn't quit on the Contract with America," said Pence. "We did."

Voters will see whether the GOP regains its distinctives, and will also watch what Democrats do with their newly gained majority. The party has promised to push quickly for a higher minimum wage and Medicaid alterations, and some Democrats are demanding a quick exit of American troops from Iraq.

But not all the Democratic newcomers are liberal. Rep. Rahm Emmanuel (R-Ill.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, acknowledged that recruiting Democratic candidates who can appeal to conservative voters has been part of the party's strategy this election season.

In some cases, the plan worked. Voters in a handful of districts across the country elected Democrats with a slate of conservative ideas.

In western North Carolina's 11th Congressional District, Democrat Heath Shuler defeated eight-term Republican incumbent Charles Taylor by an 8-point margin. Shuler, 34, a former NFL pro and first-time candidate, identifies himself as an evangelical Christian who is pro-life and opposed to gun control.

In 2001, Republicans tried to recruit Shuler to run for the House in Tennessee, where he lived at the time. Shuler demurred, but accepted an invitation by Democrats to run in North Carolina this year. The Democrat has called for a change in Iraq, but running on a platform of "mountain values" like honesty and helping the poor, Shuler attracted voters across the political spectrum. Some of his strongest support came from regions deemed most conservative.

On a campaign stop in October, Shuler told The New York Times that there is room in the Democratic Party for conservative ideals such as pro-life positions. "I'm pro-life and I'm part of the Democratic Party, so I hope it's part of the platform," he said. "Someone needs to lead."

Indiana's Brad Ellsworth is another example of the Democratic effort to attract conservatives. Ellsworth, a Roman Catholic who describes himself as "a conservative Democrat," won a huge victory against Republican incumbent Rep. John Hostettler in Indiana's 8th District. Ellsworth says he is pro-life and supports a Republican-oriented immigration bill. The candidate was able to deflect his opponent's warnings that an Ellsworth win would be a win for liberal Democrats like Pelosi.

Tim Wildmon, president of the American Family Association, told WORLD that injecting social conservatives into the Democratic Party is a good thing, but that time will tell whether moderate Democrats will be able to influence the liberal bent in their party. House committee chairmanships will likely go to some of the most liberal Democratic members, and those members will wield control over what legislation makes it to the floor.

Still, Wildmon says that "competition is a good thing" and hopes it will lead to reform in both parties. Wildmon hopes that evangelicals will continue to support pro-life and traditional marriage issues, but he also thinks Christians should "be concerned with a multiplicity of issues, not just one or two." On issues like poverty-fighting and economic reform evangelicals may disagree, he says, "but they should still be willing to do their homework and search for biblical solutions."

As a Democratic Congress begins to look for solutions to a myriad of complex problems, Wildmon is reminding evangelicals that their hope isn't in politics: "Our faith isn't shattered because we have one bad night at the polls."

Jamie Dean

Jamie Dean

Jamie is national editor of WORLD Magazine. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and previously worked for the Charlotte World. Jamie has covered politics, disasters, religion, and more for WORLD. She resides in Charlotte, N.C. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.