GOP Poised to Control the House and Maybe the Senate
Policy + Politics

GOP Poised to Control the House and Maybe the Senate

Bulletin No. 3 8:55 pm
Joe Manchin III Wins West Virginia Senate Race
West Virginia Democratic Gov. Joe Manchin III just scored an impressive victory over Republican businessman John Raese to fill the unexpired term of the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D), according to network projections. Manchin’s come-from-behind victory was crucial to the beleaguered Democrats in trying to retain control of the Senate. With the governor now safely in the winner’s column, Republican National Chairman Michael Steele conceded in an interview with CNN that while it will be a good night for the GOP in the House races, a Republican majority in the Senate now appears out of reach. Manchin had to overcome Republican accusations that while he was a good governor, Manchin would be a puppet of President Obama if he won the Senate seat. In recent days, the governor has distanced himself from Obama’s administration with a suit against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and campaign ads emphasizing Manchin’s NRA endorsement and his differences with Obama over the budget and energy policies.

Bulletin No. 2 7:11 pm
Rand Paul Wins Kentucky
Ophthalmologist Rand Paul, a Republican champion of the Tea Party, was just declared by the networks the winner in Kentucky of a nasty, hard-fought Senate battle with Democrat Jack Conway, the state attorney general who aired ads raising questions about Paul’s religious convictions. Paul is one of a handful of Tea Party candidates with a strong chance of winning Senate seats tonight. They include Sharron Angle, a former state legislator, who is running neck-and-neck with Senate Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada; district attorney Ken Buck, who is battling Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet in Colorado, and former Rep. Pat Toomey (R), who is running against Democratic Rep. Joe Sestak for the Pennsylvania Senate seat currently held by independent Arlen Specter. Meanwhile, former Indiana Republican senator Daniel R. Coat, a Washington lobbyist, made a successful political comeback by beating Rep. Brad Ellsworth (D) for an open Indiana Senate seat.

Bulletin No. 1 6:18 pm
Republicans were buoyant about their election prospects, as House GOP leader John Boehner, the presumptive Speaker if Republicans take back the House, declared “This is going to be a big day” after voting in Ohio this morning. President Obama said "things have gotten better over the last two years" across the board, but warned in a series of radio interviews that all of it will be "at risk" if the Republicans prevail. The economy clearly was the top issue for voters, and about four in 10 said they are worse off financially than they were two years ago, according to preliminary exit poll results and pre-election polls.

President Obama has been telling audiences for months that it was the Republicans who drove the economy into a ditch and that it would be a huge mistake to “give them the keys to the car again.” Over the weekend, he complained to a crowd in Ohio that GOP lawmakers stood on the sidelines for much of the past two years, criticizing his economic, health care and regulatory policies but doing nothing to help.

But as voters head to the polls Tuesday for what is shaping up as the most consequential midterm election in more than a decade, Republicans are on the verge of reclaiming the keys to the House and making strong inroads in the Senate. Pollsters and political experts are predicting a wave election in which Republicans could pick up as many as 70 House seats – they only need 39 to win a majority – and close to the 10 needed to wrest control of the Senate. “We’re going to see a Republican tidal wave of really historic magnitude,” Republican pollster Bill McInturff told MSNBC yesterday.


The Top Issues
Voter anxiety and anger over a stalled economic recovery, unemployment hovering near 10 percent, a $1.3 trillion deficit and Obama’s controversial health care reforms and bailouts of the auto industry have fueled the popularity of the Tea Party and fostered an anti-government, “throw the bums out” attitude that likely will lead to wholesale changes – and force Obama to retool his agenda and strategy.

 Nearly four in 10 likely voters (38 percent) say the job situation will be most important in their vote, compared with 24 percent who say health care will be most important and 19 percent who cite the deficit, according to Pew Research Center’s final 2010 pre-election survey. The deficit and health care  rival jobs as the top voting issue for Republicans; among Democratic and independent likely voters, far more say jobs will be most important than any other issue.

Adding to the Democrats’ election woes is Obama’s dismal job approval rating among white voters – currently below 40 percent – which is hurting Democratic candidates in conservative and swing districts. Approximately 100 House seats are still in play and over 90 of those are currently held by Democrats. Only a handful of seats now held by Republicans are even considered competitive – including the seat vacated by Mike Castle in Delaware in his unsuccessful bid for Senate and the one being vacated by Mark Kirk in his race for Obama’s old Senate seat in Illinois.

What's at Stake
Both parties are benefiting from an unprecedented outpouring of campaign spending for media and get-out-the vote efforts  – an estimated $4 billion – by labor, big business, special interest groups and political party organizations. That spending is emblematic of the high stakes in this election, as the party in power will have the biggest say over such critical issues as future spending levels for federal agencies, whether to fully extend the Bush-era tax cuts, and how to respond to the presidential fiscal commission’s recommendations in early December for reforming entitlements and slowing the growth of the long-term debt.

Also at stake is the future of the major health care legislation that Obama signed into law early this year. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., who is in line to become chairman of the House Budget Committee, has vowed to try to block or slow implementation of the America’s Affordable Health Choices Act by denying funds to the Department of Health and Human Services, the Internal Revenue Service and other agencies responsible for implementing the law in the coming years.


Some analysts see a parallel between today’s almost certain Republican blowout and the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994, which forced then-Democratic President Bill Clinton to negotiate a series of compromises with the new Republican leaders over the budget, welfare and other issues. Whether the Republicans and Obama can find common ground on even a small handful of issues, or whether they will become hopelessly mired in legislative gridlock through the 2012 presidential election, remains to be seen. Regardless of how it all plays out, the Republicans will have to re-assume at least partial responsibility for the lethargic economy and persistently high unemployment.


“When you get power you’ve got to use it – constructively, hopefully,” said Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., the outgoing ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee. “And of course the president will still have the veto pen and he may still have the Senate. But in any event, it clearly will be a divided government . . . and there will have to be some cooperation here to get something done, on the issue of spending restraints particularly.”


The Likelihood of Compromise
House Republican Leader John Boehner of Ohio, the presumptive new speaker, has given mixed signals on whether he would be willing to negotiate with the administration. “Going forward, I will continue to fight for the smaller, more accountable government the American people want,” he told The Fiscal Times earlier this month. “To the extent that President Obama and congressional Democrats are willing to work with us toward that goal, I think we can get a lot done.” Last Wednesday, however, he told Sean Hannity on the radio that “this is not a time for compromise.”


Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has taken a much tougher partisan line, warning that Republicans are more interested in ousting Obama in two years than negotiating accords. “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president,” McConnell told The National Journal last week.

Heading into the election, the Democrats holds a 255- to 178-seat advantage over the Republicans, with two vacant seats, and a 59- to 41-seat advantage in the Senate, including two independents who caucus with the Democrats. That means the GOP would need a net pickup of at least 39 seats in the House and 10 in the Senate to regain control of the two chambers.

The Probable Outcome
A Washington Post-ABC News poll predicts 49 percent of likely voters will vote for the GOP House candidate, compared to 45 percent who will vote Democrat. “This four-point GOP edge puts Republicans in an even stronger position than they were heading into the final days of the 1994 election,” the Post said.

The highly regarded Cook Political Report forecasts that Republicans are poised to pick up between 50 and 60 House seats (with higher gains possible), potentially the largest single-cycle net House shift in 72 years. While Senate Republicans at one time seemed capable of winning back the majority, Cook said that the odds are now against the Senate changing hands – but the GOP could nonetheless pick up six to eight seats .

In the gubernatorial races, meanwhile, the Republicans also have a huge opportunity to take a commanding lead. Democratic governors currently hold a slender 26 to 25 margin over the Republicans. With 37 gubernatorial contests on the ballot today, Cook is projecting a net gain for the Republicans of six to eight statehouse seats .

Republicans look like easy winners in at least nine states now run by Democrats: the open governorships in Kansas, Michigan, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Wisconsin and Wyoming, and the governorship of Iowa now held by Democrat Chet Culver, who trails Republican Terry Branstad in the polls. However, in California, Democrat Jerry Brown is the favorite to succeed Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger.


Obama inherited one of the worst economic disasters in U.S. history and managed to stabilize the economy with a series of steps, including a continuation of the Bush administration’s bank bailout, passage of an unpopular $800 billion stimulus package, tax cuts for the middle class, a bailout of the auto industry and enactment of a major overhaul of financial system regulations.


With GOP leaders regularly denouncing the stimulus package and Obama’s economic policies, the president has pleaded with voters on the campaign trail not to allow the country to return to the economic, regulatory and budget strategies of President George W. Bush’s administration “that will get us back into a mess.”


Moreover, some Democrats and political experts warn that Boehner and McConnell may find it difficult – if not impossible – to control their party with a sudden influx of Tea Party adherents, including anti-government Senate candidates Rand Paul of Kentucky, Sharron Angle of Nevada, Joe Miller of Alaska, Ken Buck of Colorado and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania. Throughout the country, GOP House candidates have made substantial inroads by blasting Obama and Democrats who supported his agenda.


Freshman Dems in Trouble
Among the roughly 100 House races still in play, the most endangered Democrats are freshmen who were swept into office on the president’s coattails in 2008 and then closely supported his agenda, and more conservative “Blue Dog” Democrats in largely southern congressional districts who are clinging to office in marginally Republican areas, despite opposing the president on health care reform, the stimulus package and other key measures.

Among the Democratic freshmen fighting for their political lives: Reps. Betsy Markey of Colorado, Mark Schauer of Michigan and Mary Jo Kilroy of Ohio, who all backed Obama during their first term in office, and Reps. Walt Minnick of Idaho, Frank Kratovil Jr. of Maryland, Paul Kanjorkski of Pennsylvania and Travis W. Childers of Mississippi, who didn’t back Obama but are in trouble nonetheless.


More veteran House Democrats, including committee chairmen Ike Skelton of Missouri, John M. Spratt Jr. of South Carolina, Chet Edwards of Texas and Stephanie Herseth Sandlin of South Dakota – a leader of the Blue Dog Democrats – are all running scared because of unrelenting negative advertising by the Republicans and special interest groups, and the impact of the Tea Party.


On the Senate side, Democrats have struggled to avoid a political bloodbath at the polls, but a half-dozen or more well-known figures may go down, most notably Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, who is locked in a bitter battle with Sharron Angle, the Tea Party challenger, and Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas. Other Democrats who are threatened include senators Michael Bennett of Colorado and Russ Feingold of Wisconsin.