WASHINGTON -- Democrats strengthened their majority in Congress and wrested key governorships from Republicans yesterday in an election spiked with a generous dose of voter venom.
The results appeared to deal a political blow to President Bush, who had campaigned coast-to-coast for Republicans this fall. Incomplete returns and network exit polls suggested that Mr. Bush's sharp plunge in public approval during the budget fight in Washington had damaged Republicans' chances in a number of key races.
Bad feelings over taxes and the budget resulted in some of the biggest surprises of the night, as two legislators expected to win easily, Sen. Bill Bradley, D-N.J., and Representative Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., had to fight for their political lives.
Democrats scored major triumphs in governor's contests in Texas and Florida, two states that gain House seats in next year's reapportionment and that have trended Republican in recent years.
In the biggest upset of all, Democrat Ann Richards shocked Republican Clayton Williams in the Texas governor's race. One month ago, one of Ms. Richards' top advisers had been quoted as saying that she was through, but a series of gaffes by Mr. Williams, an oil-rich political neophyte who spent $8 million of his own money, propelled her back into contention.
In Florida, Democrat Lawton M. Chiles Jr., a former senator, ousted unpopular Republican Gov. Bob Martinez, putting another one of the big three Sun Belt governorships into Democratic hands, while three controversial GOP congressmen were trailing in incomplete returns.
By taking those governorships away from the Republicans, Democrats were poised to control redistricting next year in two of the big three Sun Belt states. In the third, California, Democrat Dianne Feinstein and Republican Pete Wilson were locked in a close duel.
Perhaps appropriately, the end of one of the most volatile campaigns in recent memory produced an unusually large number of photo finishes in major races. Early this morning, five governor's contests were virtual ties, including key races in Illinois and Michigan.
Overall, incomplete returns showed a net gain of two governorships for the Democrats, although Republicans picked up the governorships of at least two major states, Ohio and Massachusetts.
Despite considerable voter anger with politics as usual, the overwhelming majority of House and Senate incumbents were returned to office.
Not a single Democratic senator had been defeated. One Republican incumbent, Minnesota's Rudy Boschwitz, was apparently defeated, according to network projections and incomplete returns.
In the high-profile North Carolina Senate contest, incumbent Republican Jesse Helms easily defeated Democratic challenger Harvey Gantt. Projections based on incomplete returns indicated that Mr. Helms' victory margin would be 8 percentage points, double the margin of his 1984 re-election victory.
In House races, Democrats were poised to add at least seven seats to their 83-seat majority. Early returns showed that at least seven incumbents had been defeated, including Democrat Roy P. Dyson, D-Md.-1st.
Among the Republican winners was Gary A. Franks, 37, a Waterbury, Conn., alderman who became the first black Republican elected to the House since 1932.
Voter dissatisfaction was reflected, however, in the unusually strong showing by independent candidates, in close calls for a number of incumbents and in the results of ballot initiatives.
One of the clearest measures of anti-politician sentiment came in Colorado, where voters approved a referendum limiting legislators to eight years in office. The measure would apply both to members of the state legislature and to Congress, although the federal limits are likely to provoke a constitutional test that will have to be resolved in the courts.
In New Jersey, Mr. Bradley escaped with a narrow 4-percentage-point victory over an obscure, underfinanced Republican. The challenger, Christine Todd Whitman, had urged voters to vent their anti-tax fury on the popular senator, whose standing as a potential presidential candidate suffered a serious setback.
Mr. Gingrich, the second-ranking House Republican and leader of an intraparty revolt against the Bush-approved bipartisan budget agreement, was in a close fight in his Georgia district. Even if he survived, the close shave was likely to imperil his
continued status as a House leader, since such posts rarely go to congressmen considered vulnerable.
Lowell P. Weicker Jr., a former Republican senator running as an independent, captured the governorship in Connecticut over a pair of
congressmen from the two major political parties.
And an avowed socialist, Bernard Sanders, unseated liberal Republican Representative Peter Smith of Vermont. In his campaign, Mr. Sanders, the former mayor of Burlington, who will be the first socialist in Congress since the 1950s, attacked both the Democratic and Republican parties as tools of corporate interests and rich individuals.