It was a bumpy trail, but Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky emerged Tuesday night as the new ringmaster of the Senate.
As tens of millions of voters disgruntled with President Obama and the Democrats turned to the GOP to set the congressional course for at least the next two years, the taciturn, wily McConnell, 72, won reelection to a sixth term over Democratic challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes.
Now he is s about to realize a long-standing dream to take charge of the Senate as the new Majority Leader. He will supplant his bitter rival, Democrat Harry Reid of Nevada whom he once called “the worst leader of the Senate ever.”
While the final shape of a new Senate and House will not be known for many weeks pending the outcome of a runoff in Louisiana, Republicans last night picked up at least seven Democratic seats--one more than they needed to claim a majority in the 114th Congress--and likely will pick up more.
In the wake of this mini-wave election, McConnell and House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) will have partial control over the fate of Obama’s legislative and budget agenda for the final two years of the president’s term. They will also have to find a way to work with Obama and the Democrats to pass portions of their agenda, to prove the Republicans can govern before the 2016 presidential campaign heats up.
McConnell has been giving mixed signals throughout his lengthy campaign about how he would manage the Senate and set the agenda – warning more than once that he would risk another government shutdown in challenging Obama to accept GOP policy on must-pass spending bills.
However, in his victory speech in Louisville last night, McConnell tempered his vows to push back on Democratic policies on health care, the environment, immigration and other issues that have fueled public distrust of government with a pledge to seek common ground with Obama where possible.
“Just because we have a two-party system doesn’t mean we have to be in perpetual conflict,” he said, sounding a little like Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and other Tea Party champions he will have to rein in. “I think I’ve shown that to be true at critical times in the past. I hope the President gives me the chance to show it again. There’s so much that we can and should do for the good of all Americans.”
Cruz, for his part, called the election a “tremendous night for Republicans,” although he refused to say whether he would support McConnell for Majority Leader when it comes to a vote next week.
“It was a powerful repudiation of the Obama agenda, the Obama economy which isn’t working,” he told CNN. “And now really the responsibility falls on Republicans, now that we’ve been handed the majority, for us to stand up and lead.”
Cruz said he was open to compromise with the administration on jobs and economic growth and regulatory reform. “If the president is willing to work together, we’re willing to work with him…. The two biggest issues in this election nationwide were number one, stopping the train wreck that was Obamacare, and number two, stopping the granting of amnesty” to illegal immigrants. The Senate will have a decidedly new look in January after Republicans claimed at least seven seats currently held by Democrats, including in Arkansas, Colorado, Montana, Iowa, North Carolina, South Dakota and West Virginia.
In probably the biggest upset of the night, North Carolina House Speaker Thom Tillis, a Republican, toppled incumbent Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan in one of the toughest midterm election campaigns. Hagan struggled to overcome a deluge of campaign ads linking her to President Obama and his policies.
Republican Rep. Tom Cotton unseated freshman Sen. Mark Pryor in Arkansas despite efforts by former President Bill Clinton to salvage Pryor’s campaign, while GOP Rep. Cory Gardner beat Democratic Sen. Mark Udall in Colorado.
In Iowa, state senator Joni Ernst won her battle with Democratic Rep. Bruce Braley to succeed retiring liberal Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin. The fiery Iraq War veteran first gained national attention by boasting that she learned something about cutting government pork by castrating hogs on her family farm. She arguably has more star power than many of the other Republicans headed for the Senate.
As the night wore on, the picture grew from uncertain to better and better for the Republicans. If it wasn’t exactly a wave election, it clearly qualified as a resounding victory. Veteran GOP Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas barely pulled out a victory over millionaire Greg Orman, who ran as an independent.
And Republican businessman David Perdue soundly defeated Democratic rival Michele Nunn in a fight over an open GOP seat in Georgia. Many assumed that Perdue and Nunn would be forced into a runoff, but Perdue scored a solid victory with 54 percent of the vote.
Democrats barely salvaged a seat in New Hampshire, where Sen. Jeanne Shaheen fended off a tough challenge from Republican Scott Brown, a former Massachusetts senator who stressed the need for a tougher stand against ISIS and other threats to national security.
Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) barely fended off a surprisingly strong challenge from Republican Ed Gillespie, a longtime Washington insider and lobbyist and former chair of the Republican National Committee. Only about 13,000 votes separated the two with more than two million votes cast.
Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana was forced into a runoff next month by GOP Rep. Bill Cassidy after neither candidate was able to break a 50 percent vote threshold. And the outcome of incumbent Democratic Sen. Mark Begich’s battle with GOP rival Dan Sullivan in Alaska may not be known for days.
McConnell’s challenger, Alison Grimes, is the scion of a well-known Democratic family with close ties to Bill and Hillary Clinton. Grimes, 35, is half McConnell’s age and argued he was too ingrained in Washington politics to understand his state’s needs. She seemed well positioned to challenge McConnell, whose job approval rating in Kentucky was dismal, with 37 percent approving and 54 percent disapproving of his performance.
But McConnell countered that Grimes was in league with Obama on too many issues, including efforts to reduce global warming at the expense of Kentucky’s coal industry. She tried mightily to distance herself from Obama – as did numerous other Democratic candidates – and in the end looked foolish when she refused to say publicly whether she voted for Obama in 2012.
After the GOP won a wave midterm election in 2010 fueled by Tea Party conservatives, McConnell clashed with the White House and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) on everything from the future of the Affordable Care Act to immigration reform, energy and the environment and judicial appointments.
Yet at critical moments, he stepped in and helped negotiate deals with Vice President Joe Biden to avert a first ever default on the U.S. debt in 2011 and that ended a 16-day government shutdown in the fall of 2013.
The complexity of getting anything done in a divided government may help to explain why McConnell and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) have been relatively circumspect in their early previews of what to expect if the Republicans are fully back in charge of Congress beginning in January.
Far from the bold, Tea-Party tinged rhetoric that preceded the Republican takeover of the House in 2010 – when GOP leaders vowed to cut at least one government program a week, dismantle chunks of the Affordable Care Act and regularly summon Obama administration officials to justify their policies – Republicans now are sounding more realistic ambitions.
Although he has occasionally threatened the Obama administration’s policies or tried to force Obama to accept GOP-inspired spending bills or another government shutdown, McConnell has told reporters recently that his agenda includes approving the Keystone XL oil pipeline and repealing an unpopular medical device tax approved as part of Obamacare.
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