WASHINGTON -- In a surprise ending to the century's last election, Democrats picked up as many as five seats in the House of Representatives yesterday. It was only the second time since the Civil War that the party holding the White House gained House seats in a midterm election.
Stunned Republicans maintained control of Congress, but their lackluster showing is likely to slow the push for the impeachment of President Clinton. Instead, congressional leaders are likely to feel increased pressure to accelerate the impeachment inquiry and craft a deal for some punishment short of forcing Clinton from office.
The Democratic pickup in the House could total five seats, cutting the Republican majority in the House nearly in half.
Republicans fared much worse than GOP officials had predicted, failing to gain seats in the Senate and losing the governorship of California and three other states.
Clinton, buffeted by scandal and facing an impeachment inquiry, nevertheless enjoyed the best midterm election since Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1934, the last time a president's party gained seats.
The president had no immediate comment on the results.
In election-night interviews, Republican leaders downplayed the impeachment question. House Speaker Newt Gingrich called it a "secondary" matter for the next Congress but added it would be "a dereliction of duty" for the House to drop its inquiry.
Voters were not dissatisfied enough to shift the balance of power in Congress significantly. About 98 percent of incumbents seeking re-election were victorious.
"This was sort of a status quo election," said Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi, whose party had been hoping for gains of up to five Senate seats.
Two conservative Republican senators, Alfonse M. D'Amato of New York and Lauch Faircloth of North Carolina, were unseated. Democratic Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun, the first black woman elected to the Senate, went down to defeat in Illinois.
At least four House members were defeated, out of 402 seeking re-election.
"People are saying, 'Let's get back to the kitchen-table issues,' " said House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri. "Let's get the impeachment over with, fairly and expeditiously, but let's get back to our issues."
The loss of Republican House seats could force changes in the Republican leadership in the next Congress. But the lack of a clear majority could make it harder for the government to get things done over the next two years.
Democrat-friendly issues such as Social Security and education, and voter dissatisfaction with the Republican-majority Congress were among the factors behind the ballots cast yesterday, according to exit polling of more than 6,000 voters as they left about 1,150 polling places around the country.
But Democratic strategists cautioned privately that the 1998 election did not signal a major turnaround for their party. Outside the Northeast, exit polls showed that voters identified more closely with the GOP than with the Democratic Party.
Republicans continue to hold the majority of the governorships, despite a net loss of two, including California, the most important prize at stake.
Yesterday was a particularly good day for GOP gubernatorial candidates named Bush, however. George W. and Jeb, the elder sons of the former president, won elections for governor in Texas and Florida, respectively.
Democrats also picked up governorships in Iowa, Alabama and South Carolina. In Minnesota, Jesse "The Body" Ventura, a former pro wrestler running as the Reform Party candidate, scored an upset victory in the race for governor.
Turnout nationwide was estimated at 38 percent of the voting-age population, slightly higher than in 1994 and the best for a midterm election since 1970.
Clinton, who watched the returns with aides at the White House, could only be delighted at the results. Among the Republican casualties was the pugnacious D'Amato, who once chaired Senate hearings on the Whitewater matter. D'Amato fell to moderate Democratic Rep. Charles E. Schumer of Brooklyn after the most expensive -- and nastiest -- Senate race in the country.
Another Republican who fell had been linked to the selection of independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr. North Carolina's Faircloth is close to the federal judge who led a three-judge panel that selected Starr for the job.
Republicans consoled themselves with the fact that they had retained their House majority for the third time in a row, a feat Republicans had not achieved since the 1920s.
As is often the case in nonpresidential elections, local issues and personalities had as much influence over the outcome as any national trends.
While Democrats saw evidence of an anti-impeachment backlash, exit polls showed that three out of five voters said they did not consider the election a referendum on the Clinton sex scandal and impeachment.