WASHINGTON (AP) – Democrats captured more than enough Republican-held districts Tuesday to seize control of the House after a dozen years in the minority as voters demonstrated disenchantment with a war, a president and a scandal-scarred Congress.

Winning 23 GOP seats, if Democrats hold nearly all of their own, they would rise to power and clear the way for Rep. Nancy Pelosi to become the country’s first female House speaker. By early Wednesday, no Democratic incumbent had lost.

“The old era of irresponsibility is over, and the new era of real reform has just begun,” declared Rep. Rahm Emanuel, the Illinois Democrat who oversaw his party’s House campaign.

Faced with the inevitable, the White House made plans for President Bush to call Pelosi first thing Wednesday morning, and Republican Party Chairman Ken Mehlman called to congratulate Democratic Party Chairman Howard Dean and Emanuel.

“It’s been kind of tough out there,” conceded House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., who won a 11th term.

The magic number for control was 218 seats. By late Tuesday, Democrats had won 211 seats and were leading for another 22, which would give them 233. Republicans won 172 and were leading in 28.

Casualties of a Democratic call for change, three GOP congressmen lost in Indiana, three more in Pennsylvania, two in New Hampshire, one in North Carolina and one in Kansas. Democrats won open seats in New York, Arizona, Iowa and elsewhere.

Scandals that have dogged Republicans appeared to hurt GOP incumbents even more than Bush’s unpopularity and the nearly four-year-old war in Iraq.

Republicans surrendered the Texas seat of former Majority Leader Tom DeLay, who resigned from the House after being charged in a campaign finance scheme, the Ohio seat once held by Bob Ney, who resigned after pleading guilty in a lobbying scandal, and the Florida district of Mark Foley, who stepped down after the disclosure that he sent sexually explicit messages to male congressional pages.

In Pennsylvania, Democrats defeated Curt Weldon in the fallout from a federal corruption investigation and Don Sherwood who admitted to a long-term affair with a much younger woman who says he choked her.

Midway through the evening, Pelosi, a grandmother five times over, briefly addressed a crowd of party faithful at an election-night fete at a Washington hotel.

“I thank all of you for taking us to where we are tonight,” said Pelosi, who won an 11th term. As she left the stage, half the crowd started chanting “Madam Speaker” and the other shouting “Nancy, Nancy.”

Ethics woes, the war and overall anger toward Bush appeared to drive voters to the Democrats, according to surveys by The Associated Press and the television networks of voters as they left voting places. Several traditionally hard-fought demographic groups were choosing Democrats, including independents, moderates, the middle class and suburban women.

Those early exit polls also showed that three in four voters said corruption was very important to their vote, and they tended to vote Democratic. In a sign of a dispirited GOP base, most white evangelicals said corruption was very important to their vote – and almost a third of them turned to the Democrats.

Two out of three voters called the war very important to them and said they leaned toward the Democrats, while six in ten voters said they disapproved of the war. About the same number said they were dissatisfied with the president – and they were far more likely to vote Democratic.

Additionally, eight in ten voters called the economy very important to their House vote, and those who said it was extremely important – about four in ten voters – turned to Democrats.

All 435 House seats were on the ballot, and most incumbents won easy re-election. The current lineup: 229 Republicans, 201 Democrats, one independent who lines up with the Democrats for organizational purposes, and four vacancies, three of them in seats formerly held by Republicans.

The fight for control came down to 50 or so seats, nearly half of them in a string stretching from Connecticut through New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky. All were in Republican hands, a blend of seats coming open and incumbents in trouble.

For months, national surveys have showed Democrats favored over Republicans by margins unseen since 1990 as voters have grown restless with the Bush administration and seemingly more ready for an end to one-party rule on Capitol Hill.

American casualties and costs have climbed in Iraq, and public support for the war has fallen, as have approval ratings for Congress along with the president.

In addition, DeLay, R-Texas, was charged with participating in a campaign finance scheme and resigned from the House. Ney, R-Ohio, resigned, too, after pleading guilty in the Jack Abramoff influence-peddling investigation. A month before the election, Foley, R-Fla., stepped down when it was disclosed that he had sent sexually explicit electronic communications to former congressional pages.

Through it all, Democrats cast the race as a national referendum on Bush and Iraq, accusing Republicans of walking in lockstep with the president and rubber stamping his policies.

Republicans insisted the elections came down to choices between individual candidates from coast to coast – and that Democrats were liberals who would raise taxes, flee from Iraq and be soft on terrorists.

Initially, Democrats targeted GOP-held seats left open by retiring Republicans as well as districts where Bush won by close margins in 2004 – many in the Northeast and Midwest. In recent weeks, Democrats have been able to expand the battlefield, making plays for seats long in Republican hands, such as in Wyoming and Idaho.

The GOP, defending its majority, made serious bids for only a handful of Democratic-held seats, including two districts in Georgia that the Republican legislature redrew to make more hospitable to the GOP.

As the 2006 midterm election cycle began, Republicans were optimistic that they would be able to extend their reign because they had limited the number of GOP retirements, leaving fewer open seats that would be targets for Democrats.

Then violence increased in Iraq and scandals erupted in the House – knocking the GOP off course.

AP-ES-11-08-06 0059EST

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