WASHINGTON — The Democratic Party, scoring a victory of unexpected size and scope, Tuesday seized control of the Senate for the first time in six years despite an unprecedented campaign effort by President Reagan to stave off the Democratic challenge.
Apparently winning a total of at least seven Republican-held Senate seats, while apparently losing only one of their own, Democrats from coast to coast either won or were projected as winners over Republican freshmen who had been swept into office in Reagan's 1980 landslide victory but who found his campaign blitz on their behalf this year to be of little help at the polls.
"If there was a Reagan revolution, it's over," claimed House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.), who is retiring from Congress. O'Neill's House seat was won by Joseph Kennedy, son of the late Sen. Robert F. Kennedy.
As the polls were closing in the West, outgoing Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) conceded that six years of Republican rule were ending. "It's going to make it more difficult for the President," he said. "It's a question of whether it will be 53 or 55" Democrats in the new lineup, Dole added. Republicans held a 53-47 majority in the old Senate.
With Democratic voters turning out in unexpectedly large numbers, Republican candidates, all but two of them incumbents, either were defeated or were projected to lose in Florida, North Carolina, Maryland, North Dakota, South Dakota, Georgia and Nevada.
Only in Missouri, where former Gov. Christopher S. Bond defeated Democratic Lt. Gov. Harriet Woods in the race for the seat of retiring Sen. Thomas F. Eagleton, were the Republicans assured of winning a seat held by a Democrat.
In California, another state where Republicans had hoped to gain a seat, Democratic Sen. Alan Cranston opened a lead over Rep. Ed Zschau. Democrats held on in Louisiana and apparently won in Colorado, both states where Democratic incumbents chose not to run again.
Against the decidedly Democratic trend in the Senate, Republicans were holding their losses to a minimum in the House, where the Democrats held a 253-182 advantage before the election.
And in the governors' races, Republicans apparently gained eight seats, barely short of the 10 they needed to command a majority for the first time since 1970. They scored particularly striking victories in the South, wresting control of governorships in Alabama, Florida, South Carolina and Texas.
But by taking control of the Senate, Democrats cast a cloud over President Reagan's last two years in office. Although Democratic leaders immediately pledged to work with the popular President, their new-found control of the Senate, coupled with their continuing dominance of the House, will make it more difficult for the President to work his will in Congress.
"We want to cooperate," said Senate Minority Leader Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.). But he warned that if Reagan failed to work with congressional Democrats to write trade and farm legislation, "we're going ahead and putting a bill on his desk anyway."
Lineup May Be 53 to 47
In the next Congress, the Democratic majority will apparently be 53 to 47 and could go even higher. Democratic campaign workers who crowded into the Democratic National Committee headquarters chanted: "55, 55, 55."
As returns and late projections trickled in at Republican National Committee headquarters, Chairman Frank J. Fahrenkopf Jr. tried to put the best face on what was turning into a severe setback in the Senate.
"We did well in the House, we did very well in the governorships, we did well in the state legislatures," he said. "If we don't keep the Senate, we're three for four and that isn't bad."
The Democratic victory was a stinging personal defeat for Reagan, who had put his prestige and popularity on the line by campaigning exhaustively for Republican Senate candidates. Traveling 25,000 miles in three weeks, he appealed to voters to cast a final ballot for him by electing candidates that would retain a Republican majority in the Senate.
At the urging of his close friend, Sen. Paul Laxalt, general chairman of the Republican National Committee and chairman of his two winning presidential campaigns, Reagan even made a final election eve visit to Nevada to try to save for the Republicans the Senate seat that Laxalt is vacating. But the effort apparently went for naught as network projections showed former Rep. Jim Santini losing to Democratic Rep. Harry Reid.
Liberal Rep. Wyche Fowler Jr. of Atlanta, an opponent of Reagan's policies of financial support for the contras in Nicaragua, scored one of the more surprising Democratic victories. He upset Sen. Mack Mattingly, who had held significant leads in polls throughout most of the campaign but called on Reagan for a final campaign boost in the last week before the election as polls showed Fowler closing the gap. With 83% of the vote counted, Fowler led, 52% to 48%.