Reporting from Washington — The Republican Party's gains in the House of Representatives reached 61 on Friday, as seven-term Democratic incumbent Bob Etheridge conceded defeat in North Carolina's 2nd district.
Republican Renee Ellmers led Etheridge by 1,489 votes after a recount of all ballots in the district, securing another victory for Republicans and ensuring the party at least 240 seats in the new Congress.
Entering the third weekend since election day on Nov. 2, five House races remain uncalled — two in California, two in New York and one in Texas. All those seats are currently held by Democrats.
The race between Etheridge and Ellmers, like so many this year, emerged late in the year as a serious battle. Etheridge had been reelected with more than 60% of the vote in each of his last four campaigns, but Ellmers, a nurse, made opposition to healthcare reform a top cudgel against the incumbent.
But that's not all. Ellmers also ran a controversial ad this summer focused on the controversy in New York City over a proposed Islamic center to be built near the site of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. She said it would be a "victory mosque"; critics accused her of equating all Muslims to terrorists.
"We came up just a bit short," Etheridge said Friday as he admitted defeat.
He said "partisans" in Washington and a flood of outside money tipped the balance.
Several congressional seats were hotly contested in North Carolina — a state President Obama carried in 2008 — but Etheridge becomes the only incumbent to lose there.
Ellmers had joined other Republicans in Washington this week to attend orientation sessions, even as the recount went on. National Republicans including Sarah Palin had donated to a recount fund to ensure her victory held up.
In other outstanding races, Democrats who trailed on election night have gotten some positive indications as absentee ballots are counted. Rep. Tim Bishop now trails Republican Randy Altschuler by only 283 votes in New York's 1st district. In the state's 25th district, Rep. Dan Maffei has cut Republican Ann Marie Buerkle's lead to 824 votes.
Rep. Jerry McNerney leads his Republican opponent by 1,757 votes in California's 11th district, while fellow Democratic incumbent Jim Costa has extended his lead to 2,422 votes in the 20th district.
In Texas, Democratic Rep. Solomon Ortiz still trails by nearly 800 votes as several counties recount the votes.
If all current leads win in these five races, Republicans' final tally in the 112th Congress would be 243 seats to the Democrats' 192, a final pickup of 64 seats.
Republicans have not held more than 240 seats in the House since 1949.