Democrats take control of Senate, short of 'super majority'
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In parallel but overshadowed US congressional elections on Tuesday, Democrats look poised to expand their control of both chambers of the US Congress, including their biggest Senate majority in three decades.
Democrats surged to a 56-seat majority in the US Senate, wresting five seats from the Republicans as voters approved a mandate for change with the election of Barack Obama as president.
Leading lawmakers hailed their expanded control of the 100-member Senate as the start of a new chapter in history, even as they fell short of a 60-seat margin that would have given them power to overcome Republican delaying tactics.
"Tonight, we had a mandate. Not a mandate for a party or an ideology, but really a mandate for change, for hope," said Democratic Senate leader Harry Reid, who represents Nevada.
"A mandate to stop fighting over things that divide us, start working on the things that we can get done. I say to America, we have heard you," Reid said.
Prior to Tuesday's vote, Democrats held 49 seats in the 100-member Senate but enjoyed a relative majority thanks to the support of two independents.
Optimism among Democrats ran high as massive voter turnout, economic woes and disdain for Republican policies fueled victories in key races in Virginia, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Colorado and New Mexico.
Democrats won 17 of the 35 Senate seats up for grabs, while Republicans took 14. Four races were still undecided at 1200 GMT -- in Minnesota, Georgia, Oregon and Alaska.
The Democratic ranks also swelled in the House of Representatives, with major media outlets projecting at least 18 more seats going to members of Obama's party, driving up their previous 36-seat majority in the 435-member chamber.
The wins gave Democrats their second significant boost since the 2006 elections, when they gained 30 seats in the House and six in the Senate, wrenching both lawmaking chambers from the Republicans.
"It's a great night for the United States Congress. And it's a great night for the United States of America," said House Majority leader Steny Hoyer, whose party is eager to use its new leverage with Obama as commander-in-chief.
"In a bipartisan way we in the Senate and my colleagues in the House will work together to turn America in the right direction after eight long years."
The first Senate win of the evening went to Democrat Mark Warner in Virginia, elected to fill the seat being vacated by retiring Republican John Warner, who is no relation.
In the northern US state of New Hampshire, Democrat Jeanne Shaheen unseated Republican John Sununu, while in the western state of New Mexico, Democrat Tom Udall won the seat left by retiring Republican Pete Domenici, who was first elected in 1972.
North Carolina tipped to Democrat Kay Hagan after a tense race with incumbent Republican Elizabeth Dole, whose campaign faces a defamation lawsuit over an ad it ran linking Hagan to "Godless Americans," an atheist political action committee.
"What we were able to accomplish in a little more than a year is a testament to how hungry people are for a change," Hagan said in her victory speech.
"So much has gone off course for the last eight years, and it's going to take all of us working together to get it turned around again."
However, a symbolic race in Kentucky was narrowly won by Republican Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, who survived to win his fifth term with 51 percent of the vote, depriving Democrats of what would have been a major coup.
"Tonight marks the end of the one of the most exhilarating elections in US history. It also marks a beginning," said McConnell.
Republicans lost control of the Senate and House two years ago, and braced ahead of the vote for further losses amid a public backlash over the widening financial crisis and discontent with outgoing President George W. Bush.
Approval ratings for Congress overall have sunk to historic lows -- just 15 percent according to a recent CBS poll -- but voters blame the Republican administration for the financial crisis, despite the Democratic majority among lawmakers.
Republicans have argued that liberal policies will be allowed to go unchecked with a Democrat running the White House and more pouring into the Congress.
One remaining key battleground was Minnesota where former comedian Al Franken was aiming to conquer the Senate seat from Republican Norm Coleman in one of the costliest races in the country -- with more than 32 million dollars raised for the campaigns.
The two appeared tied on Wednesday morning, with 42 percent of the vote each.
And in Georgia, another competitive Republican stronghold, results early Wednesday showed incumbent Saxby Chambliss with a lead of 50 to 46 percent against Democrat Jim Martin, though the result was not yet called.
In yet another tight race, Democrats in Alaska aimed to take advantage of veteran Republican Senator Ted Steven's guilty verdict in a corruption trial last month. However, incumbents traditionally have higher chances of winning re-election than newcomers.
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