SPOKANE, Wash. — Voters in eastern Washington appeared poised to hand Republicans a prize trophy late Tuesday by toppling Democratic House Speaker Thomas S. Foley and electing his Republican challenger, 50-year-old George Nethercutt.
Foley's apparent defeat marked the first time since 1862, when Pennsylvanians voted out Galusha Grow, that a House Speaker has been ousted from the job by voters in his own district.
With 67% of the vote counted and returns from some of the 5th Congressional District's Republican-leaning rural areas still to come, Nethercutt was leading by 51% to Foley's 49%.
Washington voters had returned Foley, 65, to the nation's capital 15 times since 1964. In 1989, the reserved and cerebral Democrat who has consistently shied from partisan wrangling became Speaker and second in line to the presidency.
Late Tuesday, it became apparent that even if he won reelection, voters outside Foley's district would deny him his job as Speaker. Republican candidates on Tuesday won victory in such numbers that Democrats were losing their control of the House.
While not conceding the election, a somber Foley emerged shortly after 9 p.m. Tuesday to offer his reaction to the Republicans' apparent success in regaining control of both houses of Congress. "It will be, I think, unfortunate if the result of this election is more a sense of frustration, more a sense of gridlock and indecision that is still at the heart of public dissatisfaction."
Shortly before, a relaxed and buoyant Nethercutt had told an exultant crowd of supporters: "This is an historic moment. Republicans are taking the lead all across this country, and we're not going to stop at the borders of Washington state."
Offering something short of a victory speech, Nethercutt added: "We're poised and ready to go forward, to make it better, to have a new direction in the government, a new direction in Congress. I hope to be there."
In January, Foley will likely turn his gavel over to Georgia Republican Newt Gingrich, a fiery partisan who helped lead his party toward House control for the first time in 40 years.
Foley, who had been criticized in the House for his unwillingness to engage in fierce battles with Republicans, remained courtly to the end. At a rally on the eve of the election, the jowly, white-haired Speaker told The Times: "I'm sick and tired of the negativism and the pessimism."
Many voters emerging from the polls acknowledged that they stand to lose considerable clout in Congress with the departure of Foley. But in a political year of incendiary voter anger, eastern Washington residents said they were intent on sending a new and untested politician to represent them on Capitol Hill.
The contrast between Nethercutt and Foley could not have been greater. Nethercutt is a Spokane attorney and former county Republican Party chairman who has never held public office. He has vowed to voters that he would not serve in the House more than six years.
As Speaker of the House of Representatives, Foley became the most visible exemplar of a party and an institution under attack nationally for its entrenched power.
Two years ago, Foley filed suit against the state of Washington to annul a law that would have limited House members' service to six years and Senate members' service to 12 years. The measure won 52% of the popular vote, but Foley contended it was unconstitutional. In February, Foley won the suit, delivering a significant defeat to proponents of term limits. But the Speaker's legal crusade appeared to mark him as the ultimate career politician, arrogant and aloof from voters.
Such perceptions had put Foley as far as 18 points behind Nethercutt during the campaign. Foley returned to his district as an underdog, and played the part to the hilt.
Healy reported from Washington, D.C., and Conner reported from Spokane.