Republicans powered their way back to control of the House and put a sizeable dent in the Democrats’ hold on the Senate on Tuesday, capitalizing on voter frustration and anger over a stalled economic recovery, big government spending and near record deficits.
Four years after losing power, the Republicans took back the House by picking up at least 60 seats-- the largest single-cycle net House shift in 72 years. But the Republicans appeared to fall short of the 10 seats they would need to reclaim control of the Senate, picking up six, with three races still undecided. The GOP also wrested 10 governorships from the Democrats, Ohio and Pennsylvania among them, and gave two back, California and Hawaii.
The election will assure that the Republicans will have a commanding role in the coming months of negotiations between Obama and Congress over what more to do about unemployment, extending tax cuts, reducing spending and responding to the presidential fiscal commission’s recommendations for coping with the long term debt. Republican leaders have vowed to try to roll back federal spending, block implementation of the new health care reform law, and extend the Bush era tax cuts for all Americans, including the wealthiest.
But with the government now divided between a newly energized House GOP, a sorely divided Democratic Senate, and a politically chastened White House, lawmakers and policy makers could well be headed for months or years of gridlock. Obama has scheduled a news conference for Wednesday to discuss the election results, his first opportunity to reach out to Republican leaders and explore possibilities for legislative agreement. Former President Bill Clinton did just that after the GOP takeover of Congress in 1994 and reached agreement with Newt Gingrich and other Republicans on welfare reform, a balanced budget and other measures.
The wildcard will be the impact of the Tea Party, which is sending a substantial number of new faces to the House and Senate with strong views on the need to downsize government, cut taxes and block legislation-- including health care reform. Exit polls showed that four in ten voters expressed support for the Tea Party, an impressive mandate for the conservative, anti-government politicians who will be coming to Washington.
“We’ve come to take our government back,” Rand Paul, the senator-elect in Kentucky, told a cheering crowd of Tea Party enthusiasts Tuesday night. Paul and other Tea Party newcomers, including Marco Rubio, the Senate winner in Florida, and dozens of new House members, will pose a challenge to the House and Senate Republican leadership, as well as Obama.
House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, will succeed Democrat Nancy Pelosi of California as the next Speaker of the House, while Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky will continue to lead his members, but with a substantially stronger hand. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., fended off a tough challenge from Tea Party leader Sharron Angle to retain power. Tea Party forces had hoped to knock off Reid as the ultimate sign of their new-found influence. .
Boehner last night reached out to Tea Party activists and pledged that he would never let them down, while McConnell has declared that his primary goal is preventing Obama from winning a second term. “It’s clear tonight who the winners really are and that’s the American people,” Boehner said at a rally in Ohio, his home state. “The American people’s voice that was heard at the ballot box.”
He said that election night was “not a time for celebration; not when one out of 10 Americans is out of work, not when we have buried our children under a mountain of debt, and not when Congress is held in such low esteem. It’s time to roll up our sleeves and build a better future for our kids and our grandkids.” Boehner said the election was a “repudiation of big government and of politicians who refuse to listen.” He said it is time to “seize that moment and make sure to reject spending sprees and bailouts and backroom deals and all the other nonsense.”
He began to choke up when he recounted his life of working odd jobs and sweeping the floor in his father’s bar to make money for college, and called for a change in attitude. “Washington has been doing what’s best for Washington and not what’s best for the American people. Tonight that begins to change,” he said. Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., the presumptive House Majority Leader, said the election gives Republicans the incentive to concentrate on cutting spending and creating jobs. “The American people felt they have been ignored and said they want … to get back to focusing on cutting spending and putting a priority on getting people back to work and that’s what this is all about,” he said on CNN.
Throughout the day, the GOP tide rolled coast to coast, and from North to South just two years after Democratic President Barack Obama made history as the first African-American to win the presidency on the backs of traditional Democrats, independents and young voters. But the percentage of young voters dropped significantly this time, while the increasingly volatile independents swung to the Republicans amid the longest economic downturn since the Great Depression.
That combination of a diminished Democratic base and a huge surge in the turnout of Republicans and their Tea Party allies enabled the Republicans to far exceed the 39 vote pickup they needed to regain control of the House for the first time in four years. The result was a Republican tide that overwhelmed both newly elected Democrats and long-time incumbents.
Four prominent Democratic House committee chairmen went down in the election: John M. Spratt Jr. of South Carolina, Ike Skelton of Missouri, James Oberstar of Minnesota and Chet Edwards of Texas.
Rep. Baron Hill, a moderate Blue Dog Democrat from Indiana, who was first elected in 1998, was swamped by Republican Todd Young. In Virginia, freshman Democratic Rep. Tom Perriello, a personal favorite of Obama’s for his staunch defense of the health reform law, lost to Republican Robert Hurt, despite the president’s campaigning for him last week. And 14-term incumbent Rep. Rick Boucher, D-Va., lost to Republican challenger Morgan Griffith. In the Senate races, Republicans scored important victories, including Rand Paul in Kentucky, Marco Rubio in Florida, Ron Johnson over veteran Democrat Russ Feingold in Wisconsin, Pat Toomey over John Sestak in Pennsylvania, and John Boozman over incumbent Democrat Blanche Lincoln in Arkansas.
But all was not bleak for Senate Democrats. In Delaware, Democrat Chris Coons defeated Tea Party favorite Christine O'Donnell, in Connecticut, Democratic Attorney General Richard Blumenthal defeated professional wrestling executive Linda McMahon; and in West Virginia, Gov. Joe Manchin WON the seat formerly held by long-time Democratic Sen. Robert Byrd, who died earlier this year. Manchin’s come-from-behind victory over businessman John Raese was critical to the Democrats in clinging to power in the Senate – as was the victory of Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., over Republican challenger Carly Fiorina.
In the gubernatorial races, meanwhile, the Republicans had a huge opportunity to take a commanding lead. Democratic governors currently hold a 26 to 25 margin over the Republicans. With 37 gubernatorial contests on the ballot, the Republicans appeared headed for picking up at least a half dozen governorships. Republicans took over the governorships in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Tennessee, but Democrats held on in Arkansas, New York, New Hampshire and Massachusetts. Democrat Jerry Brown easily won the California governorship over former eBay executive Meg Whitman, who spent millions of her own wealth in her unsuccessful bid. And attorney general Andrew Cuomo defeated Republican businessman Carl Paladino to become Governor of New York.