By Thomas Ferraro
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Republicans expanded their hold on Congress in Tuesday's elections and Democrat Tom Daschle became the first Senate leader in a half century to be voted out of office, according to network projections.
While the outcome of the presidential race remained in dispute, Republicans retained control in the Senate and House of Representatives and positioned themselves to wield greater power in the U.S. capital.
The network projections showed Republicans would hold at least 53 of the 100 Senate seats, two more than they now have, and a slim majority of the 435-member House in the new 109th Congress, set to convene on Jan. 3.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist said it looked likely Republicans would win a total of 55 seats in the Senate, and add at least three seats in the House.
"It really is monumental. Nobody expected that. It is huge," Frist told CNN, describing the election results as "a huge endorsement of the president of the United States."
Speaking on ABC, Frist said he hoped strengthened Republican leadership in Congress could help end the "extreme partisanship" that has plagued Congress in the past few years.
However, Republicans will not have the 60 senators that are needed to end Democratic procedural hurdles against what critics have called "extreme" initiatives or nominees.
As of early on Wednesday, Republican Mel Martinez held a strong lead over Democrat Betty Castor in the Florida Senate race. Also undetermined was the Alaska race, but incumbent Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski appeared likely to best former Democratic Gov. Tony Knowles.
House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, a Texas Republican, predicted that his party, now with 227 House seats, would add at least a few more by the time vote counting ended.
"With a bigger majority, we can do even more exciting things," DeLay told a local TV station in Texas.
In the race for the White House, President Bush's campaign has declared victory but Democratic challenger Sen. John Kerry has refused to concede until all ballots are counted in Ohio where Bush was leading.
If Bush wins a second term, a Republican Congress would help him push what promises to be a stepped-up conservative agenda, certain to include more tax cuts and anti-abortion judicial nominees.
If Democratic challenger John Kerry were to win, he would face plenty of opposition to his vows to roll back a number of Bush initiatives, particularly tax cuts that went largely to the rich the past four years.
The next president could also make several nominations to the U.S. Supreme Court, whose members must be confirmed by the Senate.
Daschle, the Senate minority leader, was the Republicans' top congressional target and deemed the "chief obstructionist" to Bush's conservative agenda. He was the first Senate leader to be defeated since 1952 when Democrat Ernest McFarland of Arizona was unseated by Republican Barry Goldwater.
Daschle lost to former Republican U.S. Rep. John Thune, who came within 524 votes in 2002 of unseating the other senator in the Republican-leaning state, Democrat Tim Johnson.
All the House seats were up for re-election along with 34 Senate seats. But only nine of the Senate races -- in South Dakota, South Carolina, Oklahoma, Alaska, Colorado, Florida, Louisiana, North Carolina, and Kentucky -- and about 30 of the House races were seen as competitive.
Republicans picked up previously Democratic-held Senate seats in South Dakota, South Carolina, North Carolina and Louisiana, swapped a pair of other Senate seats with Democrats in Illinois and Georgia and held hotly contested Republican Senate seats in Oklahoma and Kentucky.
In Colorado, Democrat state attorney general Ken Salazar defeated brewing magnate Pete Coors for the seat being vacated by retiring Republican Ben Nighthorse Campbell.
In Illinois, Democrat Barack Obama defeated Republican Alan Keyes to succeed retiring Republican Sen. Peter Fitzgerald.
In Georgia, Republican Rep. Johnny Isakson defeated Democratic Rep. Denise Majette to replace retiring Democratic Sen. Zell Miller.
In North Carolina, Republican Rep. Richard Burr defeated Democrat Erskine Bowles for the seat being vacated by Democratic vice presidential nominee John Edwards.
In many cases, Republicans enjoyed the advantages of incumbency in fund-raising and name recognition. They also got a break in the Senate races since many of the close contests were in largely conservative states where Bush ran well.
House Republicans also benefited from a congressional redistricting plan that they pushed through Texas. It helped them protect their majority and defeat a few veteran House Democrats, including Martin Frost and Charles Stenholm.