Democrats braced for a setback Tuesday, but few expected the resounding blow delivered by voters in the midterm elections. During a night that saw Republican gain after Republican gain, the GOP comfortably recaptured the Senate, bolstered its House majority and in the process condemned President Barack Obama to a final two years in office hamstrung by a powerful congressional opposition.
Riding an apparent wave of voter discontent with Obama and Washington in general, Republicans on Tuesday won undisputed control of the U.S. Senate by taking Democratic-held seats in Arkansas, Colorado, Iowa and North Carolina and three open seats in Montana, South Dakota and West Virginia — more wins than they needed to gain a majority in the upper chamber.
And final results from a December runoff in Louisiana are widely expected to yield yet another Republican seat in the Senate.
The upshot of which is that Obama, for the remainder of his tenure, will face an already intransigent Congress, but one now controlled in both houses by an emboldened Republican Party. Nonetheless, GOP figures emerged from their party’s victory promising to end the gridlock in Washington.
“We are humbled by the responsibility the American people have placed with us, but this is not a time for celebration. It’s time for government to start getting results,” said Republican House Speaker John Boehner.
But it’s not clear if House and Senate Republicans will present a united front once in power. The Republican establishment has kept divisive tea party conservatives in check, but agreement will be needed to pass any laws on controversial issues such as immigration and taxes.
Even before Tuesday’s results were in, Obama invited House and Senate leaders of both parties to a meeting Friday at the White House.
He earlier hinted at the woes about to befall his party, noting in a radio interview that the political landscape for these midterm elections tilted against Senate Democrats. He compared it to the Republicans’ 1958 losses, during Dwight Eisenhower's second term.
“This is probably the worst possible group of states for Democrats since Dwight Eisenhower,” Obama told WNPR in Connecticut.
Geoffrey Skelley, an associate editor of Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a weekly political newsletter by the University of Virginia Center for Politics, agreed. “The geography in the Senate was pretty terrible for Democrats,” he said. “There were seven seats in states that [Republican presidential nominee Mitt] Romney won in 2012. The president’s poor ratings didn’t help.”
Discontent with the direction that Obama was taking America and frustration over inaction in Washington were likely major factors in Tuesday’s dismal results for Democrats.
Six in 10 voters said they were dissatisfied or angry with the current administration, according to an exit poll conducted by The Associated Press, although a similar proportion expressed the same sentiment about GOP leaders in Congress.
Republicans capitalized on public opinion by linking Obama to everything voters were unhappy with, from gridlock in Washington to the sluggish nature of economic recovery. Despite lower unemployment and a strong stock market, polls show that voters do not believe they are seeing the benefits and worry about the economic future of their children.
Various exit polls showed that voters wanted more action to improve the economy and less Washington involvement and, in general, felt frustrated with the Obama administration.
And the president’s critics had more cash to drive home their message than ever before.
Tuesday’s dramatic elections drew a staggering $4 billion from campaign donors, helping deliver the Obama administration the worst midterm results for a two-term president in more than 50 years.
And it wasn’t just the scale of the losses that will give Democrats the jitters but the narrow margin of some safe-seat wins.
One of the biggest shocks for Democrats during the night was just how close the Senate race in Virginia became. Democratic incumbent Sen. Mark Warner faced a stiff challenge from Republican Ed Gillespie, and Warner wasn’t declared a winner until almost midnight.
“That’s something that was absolutely on nobody’s radar,” said Rich Rubino, a politics blogger for The Huffington Post. “It wasn’t a race people thought would be contested.” He said Democrats didn’t put enough money into Virginia because they didn’t expect such a close vote.
Other races were not so close.
The first big Republican win of the evening came from Kentucky, where Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell beat Democratic challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes.
In so doing, McConnell will likely become Senate majority leader now that Republicans have won back the majority they last held in 2007. In all on Tuesday, 36 Senate seats were up for election. Republicans needed to add just six seats to their existing tally to win a majority. They surpassed that number without losing a single incumbent.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi told reporters at Democratic Party headquarters, “It’s a difficult night.”
In Georgia, where the Senate race was thought so tight that it would to go to a runoff, Republican businessman David Perdue topped 50 percent to win the seat outright against Democratic challenger Michelle Nunn.
The Republican wins were widely interpreted as a clear rebuff of Obama, who has been grappling with approval ratings in the low 40s — down from 52 percent when he was re-elected two years ago.
“Tonight we've seen that Kentucky wants someone to stand up to Obama,” said Kentucky’s other Republican senator, Rand Paul.
“Washington likes to impose from above,” said Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker, who won re-election. “We here like to build from the ground up, organically. That is what we are going to do.”
Even in Obama’s adopted home state of Illinois, Republican Bruce Rauner beat incumbent Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn.
Pre-election surveys predicted a close Senate race in Colorado, but in the end, incumbent Democrat Mark Udall lost to U.S. Rep. Cory Gardner. That’s a big worry for Democrats in 2016. Obama won Colorado two years ago, but a decisive Republican victory in this election could make the state a toss-up in the next presidential contest.
It was Colorado’s first all vote-by-mail election, which Latino groups hoped would boost the dependably Democratic Hispanic vote.
“They didn’t do too well, that’s for sure,” said Cristobal Alex, president of the Latino Victory Project, one of the organizations that launched get-out-the-vote campaigns. “What matters most right now for Latinos is immigration reform.”
Getting Hispanic voters to show up in midterm elections is always a challenge, but this year, it might have been insurmountable because of frustration with both parties. Obama’s decision to delay executive action on immigration reform — a political gamble to avoid provoking Republican opponents and to protect Democratic seats — might have backfired.
“He had to make a decision whether he wanted to mobilize Latino voters to turn out by doing executive action, which would’ve mobilized Republican voters even more,” said Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. “Maybe it would’ve been worse for Democrats. He has set himself up for a very tough decision.”
One positive outcome is that three more Latinos have been elected to statewide office, in Texas, Rhode Island and possibly California.
“We started the day with eight,” Alex said.
In West Virginia, Republican Rep. Shelley Moore Capito easily won an open Senate seat, becoming the first GOP candidate in the state to join the Senate in more than 50 years. In Arkansas, Rep. Tom Cotton defeated two-term Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor. Arkansas voters overwhelmingly approved raising the state’s minimum wage to $8.50 an hour — a ballot measure that Democrats hoped would give their candidates a boost.
Democrats won the governorship in Pennsylvania, where Tom Wolf beat Republican incumbent Tom Corbett. In California, Gov. Jerry Brown made history by winning a fourth term.
Republicans scored expected victories in Ohio and South Carolina, where Govs. John Kasich and Nikki Haley were re-elected. Florida Republican Gov. Rick Scott defeated Democratic challenger Charlie Crist, a former Republican governor who switched parties.
In Oklahoma, Republican Gov. Mary Fallin beat Democrat Joe Dorman. And in Wisconsin, one of the few states to see high voter turnout this cycle, Republican Gov. Scott Walker beat his Democratic challenger, Mary Burke.
Democratic wins were few and far between. In New Hampshire, Gov. Maggie Hassan defeated Republican challenger Walt Havenstein, and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen beat Scott Brown. Democratic Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Ed Markey of Massachusetts were easy winners.
Some notable ballot measures were decided in Tuesday’s vote.
In Colorado a controversial ballot measure that would change the definition of “person” to include the unborn was defeated by a wide margin. Medical marijuana in Florida did not receive enough support to amend the state constitution, but recreational use of marijuana was legalized in Oregon and Washington, D.C.
Several polling places in Connecticut and Chicago encountered voting snafus that required polls to stay open later in some places. The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law reported receiving many more calls from people having problems voting in these elections than in 2010. Calls to the group over the last two weeks exceeded the same period in 2010 by several thousand and, for the first time, calls came from every state.
“What we need to dig into is whether anti-voter measures played a role here. But what’s most important now is what happens next,” Alex said, adding that he hoped for “bold action” on immigration from the president.
It may well be something on Obama’s agenda, but that task — along with many others — is likely to have become more complicated, given the political realities of governing while both houses are determined to undo your legacy.