Resurgent Republicans appear poised to capture control of the House if not the Senate on Tuesday in elections midway through President Barack Obama‘s term, reaping a rich harvest of voter discontent with the economy and profound public skepticism about the future.
Drawing strength from the clamorous tea party movement, the GOP also is in line to wrest governorships from Democrats in all regions of the country, according to political strategists in both parties and public opinion polls. Big-state races in Florida, Ohio, Illinois and California remain intensely competitive into the campaign’s final hours.
Republicans must gain 40 seats to win control of the House and 10 to take the Senate. A victory in either case would spell the end of a two-year stretch in which Democrats controlled the White House and held comfortable majorities in both houses of Congress.
With unemployment at 9.6 percent nationally and economic growth anemic, as many as 100 seats appeared competitive or ripe for turnover in the 435-member House – a list that included two dozen or more already given up for lost by the Democrats.
After absorbing thrashings at the hands of voters in 2006 and 2008, Republicans guarded against public displays of overconfidence. In private, though, their debate was not whether they would win a House majority, but the size of the victory margin.
“Ladies and gentlemen, your government hasn’t been listening,” said Rep. John Boehner of Ohio, the Republican in line to become speaker of the House. “Your government is disrespecting you, your family, your job, your children. Your government is out of control. Do you have to accept it? Do you have to take it? Hell no you don’t. That’s what elections are for!” he said at a late-campaign rally in Ohio.
Publicly, Democrats betrayed no expectation that their House majority was at an end. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., turned aside any and all questions about the possibility of a night that would end her four-year tenure as the first female speaker in history.
But there was nothing bullish about the Democrats’ late-campaign pronouncements.
“While there is some evidence that the Democrats’ efforts are starting to pay off, the party still has ground to cover,” said an Oct. 27 memo from Anzalone Lizst Research, a Democratic polling firm.
The ubiquitous polls were maddeningly inconsistent on many points. But most agreed that voters preferred Republicans over Democrats in hypothetical matchups, one key indicator of voting behavior, and also that independents were swinging back to the GOP for the first time since President George W. Bush‘s re-election in 2004.
The economy dominated all else, although the discovery of an apparent al-Qaida terror plot aimed at the United States four days before the elections served as a reminder that all concerns were not domestic.
An Associated Press-GfK poll taken Oct. 13-18, found 59 percent of voters thought the country was heading in the wrong direction.
Republicans campaigned as advocates of tax cuts to stimulate the economy and promised at the same time to cut federal spending, tackle the deficit and reduce the reach of the government in general, though they offered few specifics. The agenda was a reaction to the 2008 bailout of Wall Street, the government’s partial takeover of the auto industry and the economic stimulus and health care overhaul Obama won from Congress. Some Republicans, including Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana, said “there will be no compromise” on spending, debt control or an attempt to repeal the health care law.
In rebuttal, Democrats said Republicans had wrecked the economy once and were promising a return to the same policies they had pursued before.
Whatever the outcome, the election was the costliest at any midterm in history – and one of the coarsest.
The incomplete tab was $3.6 billion and growing, with final disclosure reports not required until after Election Day. That included spending by candidates, the political parties and independent organizations, including one, Crossroads GPS, with a sterling Republican pedigree that raised tens of millions from anonymous donors and spent it attacking Democratic candidates.
Obama and the Democrats sought to make an issue of that, warning repeatedly that foreign money might be influencing an American political campaign.
But with the economy running in idle, they got little traction for that argument, or most of their others.
The ads seemed unending, and insults were woven into the fabric of many campaigns.
In the Illinois Senate race, Republicans labeled Democrat Alexi Giannoulias a “mob banker.” Democrats returned the insult, calling Republican Rep. Mark Kirk a “serial liar.”
In the House, Republican targets began with the 55 seats they lost to Democrats in 2006 and 2008, many of them in a band of states that stretched from New Hampshire to Michigan. New York was home to six; Pennsylvania five, Ohio four and Indiana three. There were four more in Florida and three each in Arizona and Virginia, where Obama campaigned on Friday in hopes of extending the career of first-term Rep. Tom Perriello.
Democratic retirements gave Republicans another group of targets, including a pair of seats in Tennessee, two more in Arkansas and one each in Kansas and Louisiana.
Additionally, the political environment brought jeopardy for a third category of Democrats, veterans such as Reps. John Spratt in South Carolina, Earl Pomeroy in North Dakota and Stephanie Herseth Sandlin in South Dakota.
The sternest test for the tea party-favored candidates came in Senate races. Marco Rubio in Florida, Rand Paul in Kentucky, Joe Miller in Alaska, Ken Buck in Colorado, Christine O’Donnell in Delaware and Angle in Nevada all defeated better-known, establishment-backed rivals to win their primaries.
Rubio’s election seemed all-but-assured, so much so that Gov. Charlie Crist, a Republican-turned-independent, and Democratic Rep. Kendrick Meek spent the final few days of the campaign trying to embarrass one another in a battle of the also-rans.
O’Donnell was the opposite of Rubio, an unknown political quality who defeated veteran Rep. Mike Castle in the primary and instantly became fodder for late-night comedians. “I am not a witch,” she said in her first ad of the fall campaign. The commercial spawned serial imitators on YouTube.com, but did little to stem her slide in the polls for a seat Republicans had once counted as a sure pickup.
Paul’s race with Democrat Jack Conway has been close for months. Buck’s challenge to Sen. Michael Bennet in Colorado and Angle’s run at Reid were closer, and the extent of Republican gains hinged in large measure on the outcome of all three.
Obama’s final-weekend campaign itinerary included his home state of Illinois, where Kirk and Giannoulias ran a race as close as any in the country.
Third-term Democratic Sens. Barbara Boxer in California and Patty Murray in Washington also have struggled for new terms, and Sen. Russell Feingold of Wisconsin was an underdog in his bid for a fourth term.
Democrats long conceded they would lose seats held by retiring Sens. Byron Dorgan in North Dakota and Evan Bayh in Indiana, and two-term Sen. Blanche Lincoln ran behind in the polls in Arkansas.
In all, there were 37 governors’ races on the ballots, 19 currently held by Democrats and 18 by Republicans.
In California, Democrat Jerry Brown sought a return to the office he held for two terms before stepping down in 1983. His Republican opponent, businesswoman Meg Whitman, spent more than $150 million of her own money opposing him. In Iowa, former two-term Republican Terry Branstad mounted a comeback bid of his own, challenging Gov. Chet Culver for the office he left in 1999.
Obama’s final campaign swing included two Midwestern states where the gubernatorial campaigns were fiercest. In Ohio, Gov. Ted Strickland sought re-election in a race with former Republican Rep. John Kasich. And in Illinois, Gov. Patrick Quinn struggled against Republican Bill Brady.
Apart from bragging rights, the statehouse races carried extra significance in the run-up to the post-census redistricting of House districts required by the Constitution. In many states, the governor has a vote in determining the new boundaries in what is often an intensely partisan event.
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