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Voters cast their ballots; Democrats brace for big losses

By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 2, 2010; 11:53 AM

Voters headed to precincts across the country Tuesday to cast their ballots in the pivotal 2010 midterm elections, with Democrats bracing for major losses in both chambers of Congress but hoping to hang on to their Senate majority.

The campaign ended as it began: loud and often mean. But the nationwide barrage of last-ditch attack ads and the sniping among the country's political leaders appeared to have little effect on the dynamics of the year.

Republicans are confident that they will recapture control of the House, while Democrats are preparing themselves for what appears likely to be a significantly smaller majority in the Senate.

Steven Duerst, the president of the College Republicans at the University of Wisconsin, campaigned late into the night Monday for Senate candidate Ron Johnson, who is leading longtime incumbent Russ Feingold (D) in pre-election polls.

"Without any background in finance or economics, I can tell that the economy is a disaster," said Duerst, explaining how even in a liberal bastion like Madison, the College Republicans have been innudated with volunteers this election cycle.

Duerst's father owns his own title insurance business; Duerst has watched him lay off employees, watched his face contort with stress and pain. "We're not going to be able to live the American dream like our parents did," he said while stumping for votes. "It scares me that the things that make this country great are going to disappear."

Meanwhile, in Washington state, supporters of Republican challenger Dino Rossi held a "victory rally" Monday to pump themselves up for what they hope will be an upset over incumbent Sen. Patty Murray (D).

"As big government takes over, our voices become smaller," said Rossi supporter Shelly Garofalo, 47, whose stuggle to find work has led her to stump for a candidate who promised more jobs and less deficit. "Liberalism leads to socialism and socialism leads to communism."

Democratic National Committee chairman Tim Kaine told CNN Tuesday morning that party officials believe they can hang on to their Senate majority, despite the Republican momentum in an election cycle dominated by voter concerns about the economy. "In the House, it's going to be tough for us," Kaine acknowledged. ".... We're not throwing in the towel. We're encouraging everybody to get out there and vote."

President Obama stayed at the White House Monday, having campaigned over the weekend in hopes of influencing an election that could throw a roadblock in front of his agenda. Obama granted a round of radio interviews, including one with Ryan Seacrest of "American Idol," and will do more interviews Tuesday, hoping to spur Democrats in battleground states to go to the polls to offset highly energized Republican voters.

House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), poised to become speaker if Republicans take control of the chamber, lashed out at the president in a radio interview and in a speech he delivered Monday night in Cincinnati.

Boehner seized on a line from an interview Obama gave on Oct. 25 to Univision Radio, in which he indicated that Republicans are "enemies" of Latinos.

"Today we have a president who uses the word 'enemy' for fellow citizens," Boehner said. "Well, Mr. President, I have a word to describe those people ... that would not be 'enemies.' They are patriots."

Obama on Monday pulled back from his remarks to Univision, the Associated Press reported, telling radio host Michael Baisden that he should have used the word "opponents" instead of "enemies" and that he was trying to send voters the message that they need to support lawmakers who stand with them on the issues.

He had told Univion that "if Latinos sit out the election instead of saying, 'We're gonna punish our enemies and we're gonna reward our friends who stand with us on issues that are important to us,' if they don't see that kind of upsurge in voting in this election, then I think it's gonna be harder" for Democrats to win.

Although Obama was in Washington on the final day of the race, first lady Michelle Obama hit the campaign trail. She appeared with embattled Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) and asked frustrated and anxiety-ridden voters to be patient.

"We expected all this change to come at once," she said, according to the Las Vegas Sun. "Truth is, it's going to take a lot longer to dig us out of this hole."

The first lady then headed for Pennsylvania and a rally on behalf of Rep. Joe Sestak (D), who is in a tight Senate race with former House member Pat Toomey (R).

Vice President Biden, meanwhile, was stumping in Vermont, where he warned voters not to let Republicans regain power, saying the GOP would reinstitute policies that brought on the worst economic conditions since the Great Depression.

Former president Bill Clinton, who has campaigned coast to coast this fall, was in Florida rallying voters for Democratic Rep. Kendrick Meek, who is in an uphill battle in his Senate race against Republican Marco Rubio and Gov. Charlie Crist. Crist quit the GOP to run as an independent. Also in Florida, Democrat Alex Sink, the state's chief financial officer, is battling Republican businessman Rick Scott in a close gubernatorial contest.

Clinton's appearance came days after it was reported that earlier he had encouraged Meek to consider leaving the race to give Crist a chance to win.

Final polling

The 2010 election will be remembered for the thousands of negative ads aired by candidates and outside groups, many which are not required to report the names of their contributors, and for spending up to $4 billion, according to some estimates.

Some candidates were still scrambling to air new commercials in the final stretch. In Delaware, Republican Christine O'Donnell, who is trailing in her race, tried to run a 30-minute commercial but the station rejected it because the tape did not arrive in time. It was yet another setback for the tea-party-backed candidate.

With unemployment at 9.6 percent, economic growth rates still anemic, and many voters worried about deficits and the national debt, Obama and Democrats are braced for significant losses that could derail many of their plans over the next two years.

Republicans looked toward significantly enhanced numbers in Congress, even though voters still hold negative views toward the GOP, as well as big gains in gubernatorial races that could affect redistricting and the 2012 presidential election.

"This election's not about us, it's about them," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), cautioning fellow Republicans against "irrational exuberance" on the eve of the election. "If we do have a great night, we ought to be grateful and act humble about the responsibility we've been given."

Republicans need 39 seats to capture a majority in the House, though with the possible loss of several seats now in GOP hands, they may have to pick off several more Democratic-held seats to claim a majority.

Final polls pointed to major GOP gains in the House, with some surveys hinting that Republicans could match the 54-seat pickup of 1994, when they won back both the House and Senate. But there was wide variance on the strength of the potential Republican wave, as well as some notable disparities between the preelection intentions of likely voters as opposed to all registered voters.

The Pew Research Center's final survey of the intentions of likely voters in House races showed Republicans at 48 percent and Democrats at 42 percent. "Our numbers suggest Republicans will comfortably take back the House," said Andrew Kohut, the center's director.

At the far end of the scale, Gallup's final poll of House voting intentions showed a huge gap, with Republicans at 55 percent and Democrats at 40 percent - the largest GOP margin Gallup has ever recorded. That would suggest gains of historic proportions. "Clearly, it shows Republicans are positioned to pick up significant seats," said Frank Newport, Gallup's editor in chief. But he stopped short of affixing a number to that prediction.

The Washington Post-ABC News poll showed Republicans at 49 percent and Democrats at 45 percent among likely voters. NBC News and the Wall Street Journal showed a six-point advantage for Republicans, while CNN put the margin at 10 - all among likely voters.

Among all registered voters, the GOP's advantages were far smaller. Gallup put the gap at four points and the Post-ABC poll showed Democrats with the advantage.

That caused some puzzlement among political strategists Monday as they sifted through the latest information, although some attributed it to an "enthusiasm gap" that has been evident through the year, with Republicans more energized about voting than Democrats.

The big disparity could mean the battle to turn out voters Tuesday - and the efforts to persuade many to cast their ballots early - is even more critical than in some past elections, not just in House contests but also in Senate and gubernatorial elections, where a series of races are considered too close to call.

(READ: The Fix on six key Senate races.)

Key contests

Nowhere is the turnout battle more important than in Nevada, where Reid is struggling to win reelection against Sharron Angle, a tea-party-backed Republican.

The most recent public polls show Angle with a slight lead, but Democrats say the early ballot numbers show a path for Reid to win. They are banking on his get-out-the-vote operation to push him to victory, but neither side has much confidence in its prediction of success.

The other Senate races that remain close are in Colorado, Illinois, Pennsylvania and Washington. Of those, Colorado may be the tightest, as appointed Sen. Michael Bennet (D) and county prosecutor Ken Buck, a tea party favorite, have been going after each other since winning their competitive primaries in August.

In Illinois, Republican Mark Kirk and Democrat Alexi Giannoulias have turned off the electorate with a campaign in which Kirk has described his rival for Obama's former seat as a "mob banker" and Giannoulias has branded Kirk "a liar" for embellishing his military record. The president campaigned in Chicago on Saturday, where he drew a huge crowd, but the race is seen as too close to call.

In Pennsylvania, Toomey may have a slight advantage, but if Democrats vote in big numbers, Sestak could prevail. Half a dozen Democratic-held House seats are at risk in the state as well.

Democrats think they have an advantage in Washington, where Sen. Patty Murray is being challenged by Republican Dino Rossi. The state has been reliably Democratic in presidential elections, and Murray's team is hoping that edge will be enough to offset the Republican tide this year.

For sheer entertainment value, the Senate race in Alaska is hard to top. Sen. Lisa Murkowski lost the Republican primary to Joe Miller, who had the support of tea party activists as well as former governor Sarah Palin, who has warred with the Murkowski family.

Rather than go quietly, Murkowski mounted a write-in campaign. When Miller ran into trouble over past misconduct, Murkowski quickly gained ground and put herself in a position to win. But Democrats say the bitter battle between the Republicans has made it possible for Scott McAdams to surprise everyone and take the seat.

Republicans need 10 seats to take control of the Senate, and that appears to be an uphill battle. If Democrats keep their majority, it will be the first time in eight decades that the House changed hands without the Senate following. But given how close many races are and the potential for recounts, the final shape of the new Senate may not be known for weeks.

Gubernatorial races

There are even more close gubernatorial races, with tossup contests in Florida, Ohio, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Oregon. Overall, however, Republicans are likely to hit or exceed their target of emerging with 30 governor's mansions in their column.

The last polls in Ohio showed Gov. Ted Strickland (D) running behind former House member John Kasich (R). Obama has made repeated trips to the state for Strickland, including a rally Sunday in Cleveland, though the arena where he campaigned was not filled. Strickland will need big backing from the Cleveland area to prevail.

Democrats could pick up the governor's mansion in California, where Jerry Brown, the state attorney general and a former two-term governor, holds a lead despite record spending by Republican Meg Whitman, the former chief executive of eBay.

But Florida represents the best chance for Democrats to salvage some pride. The presidential swing state features one of the tightest races, in which Democrat Alex Sink, the state's chief financial officer, is battling Rick Scott, a wealthy businessman and political newcomer.

Staff writers Paul Kane, Monica Hesse, Dan Zak and Debbi Wilgoren contributed to this report.

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