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After midterm wins, GOP vows to block Obama's agenda

By Dan Balz and William Branigin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, November 3, 2010; 3:06 PM

Republican leaders, buoyed by recapturing the House and gaining seats in the Senate in Tuesday's midterm elections, vowed Wednesday to pursue their plans to downsize the federal government and said voters had vindicated their efforts to block President Obama's agenda.

"We're determined to stop the agenda Americans have rejected and to turn the ship around," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told a news conference with the new presumptive House speaker, Rep. John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), and Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour. "We'll work with the administration when they agree with the people and confront them when they don't."

He said the elections showed that voters "appreciated us saying no to the things that the American people indicated they were not in favor of."

A somber Obama later acknowledged that he took a "shellacking" Tuesday night. He told a news conference that he was "very eager to sit down with members of both parties and figure out how we can move forward together." But he said it would not be easy and that "I won't pretend that we'll be able to bridge every difference or solve every disagreement."

Obama reflected that presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton had experienced similar midterm defeats.

"You know, this is something that I think every president needs to go through, because . . . the responsibilities of this office are so enormous and so many people are depending on what we do, and in the rush of activity sometimes we lose track of . . . the ways that we connected with folks that got us here in the first place," Obama said. "Now, I'm not recommending for every future president that they take a shellacking like I did last night. You know, I'm sure there're easier ways to learn these lessons."

He conceded that his relationship with the American people "has gotten rockier and tougher" over the last two years during difficult times following an "incredible high" at the time of his election.

In the earlier Republican news conference, Boehner said he saw no problem for Republicans in "incorporating members of the tea party with our party in the quest that's really the same" following the midterms, which amounted to a major rebuff of Obama and the Democrats by an electorate worried about the economy and the size of government.

"It's pretty clear that the American people want a smaller, less costly and more accountable government here in Washington, D.C.," Boehner said.

Barbour, representing an enlarged group of Republican governors across the country, said: "The voters yesterday voted against excessive spending, piling up deficits, trillions of dollars in new debt being loaded on our children and grandchildren, a huge tax increase right around the corner in January, and a government-run health care system."

Speaking just four years after their party surrendered power in Congress, the Republican leaders urged Democrats to heed what they said was the message of midterm voters and move toward the GOP's positions. "We hope that they will pivot in a different direction," McConnell said.

He called the midterms "clearly a referendum on the administration and the Democratic majority here in the Congress." He charged that Obama's health-care legislation was "a metaphor for the government excess that we witnessed over the last two years." And he warned that Democrats could "change now and work with us" or that "further change, obviously, can happen in 2012."

Boehner pledged that Republicans would "do everything we can to try to repeal this [health-care] bill and replace it with common-sense reforms that'll bring down the cost of health insurance."

Democrats, for their part, received a boost Wednesday from Colorado, where Democrat Michael Bennet declared victory in his hotly contested race against Republican Ken Buck.

One of the few bright spots for Democrats on Election Day came in Nevada. There, in the most closely watched race of the year, Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid defeated Sharron Angle, the tea party Republican who carried the hopes of conservatives across the country to beat the Senate's most powerful Democrat.

Reid made the rounds of morning television shows Wednesday, calling for newly empowered Republicans and humbled Democrats to find a way to bridge their differences.

"What we need to do is stop using words like 'chastened,' and recognize that all of us who are going to be in the U.S. Senate have to work together," Reid told MSNBC.

But in the nation's capital Tuesday night, Republicans staged a jubilant victory party. "Across the country right now, we are witnessing a repudiation of Washington, a repudiation of big government and a repudiation of politicians who refuse to listen to the people," said an emotional Boehner, who is now poised to become the next House speaker.

Obama called Boehner and McConnell Tuesday night once it was clear that the House had fallen to the GOP. The president said he looked forward to working with Republicans "to find common ground, move the country forward and get things done for the American people," according to the White House. Boehner, according to aides, said he will deal with the president in a "straightforward and honest" way.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who became the target of Republicans in their campaigns, issued a statement early Wednesday. "The outcome of the election does not diminish the work we have done for the American people," she said. "We must all strive to find common ground to support the middle class, create jobs, reduce the deficit and move our nation forward."

Reid said Wednesday that his number-one priority as majority leader will be "to help create jobs. The only thing that's going to solve our economic problems in this country is jobs. Jobs, jobs, jobs. And I'm going to do everything I can to create jobs."

Republican candidates were propelled by a combination of voter anxiety about the economy and a significant shift in sentiment among independents, who were critical to Obama's 2008 victory and to the Democrats' takeover of Congress in 2006. Democratic efforts to rally young people and minorities also fell short. Both groups voted in smaller percentages than two years ago.

In House races, Democratic incumbents fell throughout the night as, from the moment the polls began to close, Republicans marched steadily toward the 39 seats they needed to win the majority. The GOP crossed that threshold before midnight and continued to pick up seats as the counting went on in the West.

By Wednesday morning, Republican gains hit 60 seats. That wiped out all the gains that Democrats made in 2006 and 2008 and slid past the 54 seats the GOP achieved in its 1994 landslide. Republicans picked up at least three seats in each of the following states: Florida, Illinois, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia.

The GOP wave in the House spared few of the most vulnerable Democrats--and seniority was no lifejacket. Rep. John M. Spratt Jr. (S.C.), the chairman of the House Budget Committee who was bidding for his 15th term, lost his race, as did 17-term Rep. Ike Skelton (Mo.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee; Rep. James L. Oberstar, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and a House member since 1965; and 10-term Rep. Chet Edwards (Tex.).

Newer Democrats who embraced Obama's agenda also were turned out, including Rep. Tom Perriello in Virginia and Rep. John Boccieri in Ohio. But some Democrats who did not embrace all of the president's major initiatives were also defeated.

In Georgia's 2nd District, Republican Mike Keown was declared the winner Tuesday night, based on early returns. But with 100 percent of precincts reporting, the Democratic candidate, incumbent Sanford Bishop, appeared to be ahead, 51 percent to 49 percent.

Republicans gained at least six Senate seats but were blocked from winning the 10 needed to take control of that chamber as Democrats held enough of their most endangered states.

Early in the evening, Republicans picked off a Democratic seat in Arkansas, where Rep. John Boozman defeated Blanche Lincoln. Lincoln, who survived a tough primary, was the first Senate incumbent to lose. Later, Democratic Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.), who began the year on no one's list of endangered incumbents, lost to Republican businessman Ron Johnson.

In Indiana, former congressman Dan Coats (R) scored an easy victory over Rep. Brad Ellsworth (D) for a seat being vacated by Democratic Sen. Evan Bayh. Another Republican gain came in North Dakota, where Gov. John Hoeven easily captured the seat of retiring Democratic Sen. Byron L. Dorgan.

Republicans also won a Senate seat in Pennsylvania - where Republican Pat Toomey defeated Rep. Joe Sestak, who had beaten party-switching Sen. Arlen Specter in the Democratic primary. Just after midnight, they added the Senate seat Obama once held in Illinois. There, Rep. Mark Steven Kirk (R) defeated Alexi Giannoulias (D) in one of the year's nastiest campaigns.

But in West Virginia's Senate race, Gov. Joe Manchin III (D), who appeared in trouble only a few weeks ago, defeated Republican businessman John Raese.

And Democratic control of the Senate was assured just before midnight, when Sen. Barbara Boxer (Calif.) was declared the winner in her bitter contest against former Hewlett-Packard chief executive Carly Fiorina.

That meant that, for the first time in eight decades, the House changed hands without the Senate following suit.

The final balance of the Senate remained in doubt Wednesday, with three races too close to call. In Colorado, where Bennet declared victory, the GOP's Buck was not immediately conceding. In Washington, incumbent Sen. Patty Murray (D) was narrowly ahead of Republican Dino Rossi by with more 62 percent of precincts reporting.

The other Senate race still undetermined was in Alaska, where Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R), waging a write-in campaign, appeared to be leading over tea party favorite Joe Miller, who had defeated her in the GOP primary. Democrat Scott McAdams was running third. With 99 percent of precincts reporting, write-in ballots had captured 41 percent of the vote, with Miller at 34 percent and Democrat Scott McAdams at 24 percent. More time was needed to verify how many of the write-in votes were in fact for Murkowski.

In Kentucky's Senate race, tea party favorite Rand Paul (R) handily defeated state Attorney General Jack Conway (D) to keep the seat in the GOP column. "There's a tea party tidal wave, and we're sending a message," Paul told cheering supporters at his victory party.

In Florida, Republican Marco Rubio, another tea-party-backed candidate, cruised to a Senate victory against Rep. Kendrick Meek (D) and Gov. Charlie Crist, who quit the GOP to run as an independent.

One of the most prominent tea party Republicans, Christine O'Donnell, lost her bid for the Senate in Delaware, as Democrat Chris Coons won the seat once occupied by Vice President Biden. O'Donnell had been a surprise winner over Rep. Michael N. Castle in the GOP primary. But her quirky style - in her first television ad she declared, "I am not a witch" - instantly converted a likely Republican pickup into a seat that was firmly in the Democrats' hands.

Her loss was a reminder that while the tea party helped fuel the GOP surge this year, some of the candidates most favored by tea party activists proved shaky in general election contests.

In Connecticut, Republican Linda McMahon, the former head of World Wrestling Entertainment, lost her Senate race against state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal (D), despite spending about $50 million of her own money.

Republicans held their Senate seat in Ohio, where former congressman and George W. Bush administration budget director Rob Portman cruised past the Democrat, Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher. In Missouri, another House veteran, Rep. Roy Blunt (R), kept for his party the seat held by retiring Sen. Christopher S. Bond.

In New Hampshire, Republican state Attorney General Kelly Ayotte won the seat of retiring Sen. Judd Gregg (R), while in Kansas, Rep. Jerry Moran (R) took the seat of Sen. Sam Brownback (R), who won the governor's race there.

Republican incumbents won their reelection bids in Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Iowa, Louisiana, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina and South Dakota. Democrats were reelected in Maryland, in New York (both Senate seats) and in Vermont.

Republicans also made gains in governor's races, picking up at least nine seats while surrendering two, including one to an independent candidate, Rhode Island's Lincoln Chafee.

Republicans won the major industrial and Midwestern states of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa. They won two conservative bastions, Kansas and Tennessee, that had been in Democratic hands, as well as New Mexico. In Texas, Democrats fell far short in their effort to unseat Gov. Rick Perry (R).

Democrats regained the governorship of California, however, when former governor and current state Attorney General Jerry Brown defeated former eBay chief executive Meg Whitman, despite the roughly $160 million she spent on her candidacy, most of it from her own pocket.

Republicans won governor's races in Florida and Maine, while Connecticut went to a Democrat. Other gubernatorial contests in Illinois, Minnesota, Oregon and Vermont had yet to be determined Wednesday.

Economy is the main worry

With the unemployment rate at 9.6 percent nationwide, economic issues dominated the voters' agenda Tuesday. More than six in 10 called the economy their top concern, according to preliminary national exit poll data. About nine in 10 said the economy is in bad shape, and more than three times as many said they believe it is getting worse.

About half of all voters said they are "very worried" about the national economy, and most of them backed Republican House candidates.

Just 44 percent of voters said they approve of Obama's performance as president, according to preliminary findings, with 55 percent saying they disapprove. Significantly more voters said their vote was a message of opposition to the president than a sign of support - 37 percent to 24 percent.

The early exit polls showed how dramatically the makeup of the electorate has changed since Obama's victory two years ago. There were far fewer young voters - 10 percent Tuesday, compared with 18 percent in 2008 - and the number of minority voters also declined, despite a concerted effort by Obama and other leading Democrats to motivate those groups.

Tuesday's electorate was also more conservative. In the preliminary data, conservatives made up 41 percent of all voters, up from 34 percent in 2008 and 32 percent in 2006. If that held up, it would represent the highest share of conservatives in exit polls back to 1972.

The biggest switchup this year was among independents, with these swing voters favoring GOP House candidates by a 17-point margin. Four years ago, independents broke for the Democrats by a similarly wide margin.

Democrats faced daunting odds from the start of the 2010 campaign: The president's party almost always loses seats in the first midterms of his presidency, and the Democratic gains in 2006 and 2008 increased the likelihood of a Republican bounce-back. But as the election gathered force, the possibility of significant GOP gains grew.

Since the end of World War II, there have been five midterm elections in which the president's party lost more than 40 seats. Democrats lost 66 seats in 1966, 56 seats in 1946 and 52 seats in 1994. Republicans lost 49 seats in 1958 and 43 in 1974.

From witches to the tea party

Republicans ran against the Obama agenda and, in many competitive districts, Democrats ran away from it. Republicans sought to nationalize the election as a referendum on the president, while Democrats preferred to make House races a choice between individual candidates.

The campaign included high drama and low farce, and virtually nothing seemed off limits, whether it was talk of witches, whores, mob bankers, liars or an "Aqua Buddha." The term "extremist," thrown about with great frequency, seemed almost mild by comparison.

The primaries included a series of surprises, especially on the Republican side. In half a dozen states, insurgent conservatives, many backed by tea party activists, upset establishment GOP candidates.

More incumbents lost primaries than in any year since 2002, but the numbers - three senators, four House members and one governor - were still relatively modest.

One of the first to fall was Sen. Robert F. Bennett (R-Utah), who didn't make it through his party's convention process. A conservative, Bennett was punished for his vote in favor of the Troubled Assets Relief Program, which bailed out financial institutions, and for his willingness to work across party lines.

But one of those senators who lost a primary, Alaska's Murkowski, subsequently mounted a write-in campaign, and appeared to be winning early Wednesday.

If there was a defining symbol of the 2010 campaign, it was the tea party, a loose confederation of conservative activists that both energized and shook up the Republican Party.

The tea party movement first raised its banner in the spring of 2009, protesting what its supporters saw as a dangerous expansion of government's intervention in the economy and a crippling rise in the federal deficit and national debt. Over time, Republican leaders found themselves trying to harness the best of the movement's energy while defending against what Democrats quickly labeled the extreme views of many of the tea party's favored candidates.

A broad battlefield

The campaign for control of the House played out on one of the largest battlefields in modern times, with roughly 100 districts considered mildly to extremely competitive. Virtually all of those districts held by Democrats as Election Day began.

Many, however, were relatively friendly terrain for Republicans. Overall, there were 48 House districts in Democratic hands that were also won by Sen. John S. McCain (R-Ariz.) in the 2008 presidential race. Of those, 43 were considered competitive.

Freshman and sophomore Democrats were especially vulnerable, as many had won in swing or marginal districts in a pair of elections in which Republicans suffered severe losses. The GOP's magic number to take back control of the House was a net gain of 39 seats - identical to the number of Democrats who won in 2006 or later and were in some degree of jeopardy.

The battle for the Senate played out in swing states and in states that tilted toward the Democrats, making the Republican challenge of winning a net of 10 seats all the more difficult.

Republicans were seeking to take Democratic seats in purple or even blue states, such as Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Illinois, Colorado, Nevada, Washington and California.

The 2010 campaign was long, ugly and costly. Total spending, which includes that of candidates, Republican and Democratic party committees and outside groups, approached $4 billion, by some estimates.

Much of that came from unaffiliated groups that were not required by law to disclose their donors. That became a major point of controversy as Obama and other Democrats warned against an infusion of secret money from corporations and special interests influencing the outcome of the election and potentially the shape of new legislation next year.

Outside money played a major role in many of the most competitive states, including Colorado, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Washington.

Negative ads flooded television screens in states and districts with competitive races. Democrats concluded early in the campaign that their best hope of preventing sizable losses was to demonize GOP challengers. But Republicans, through their party committees, engaged in just as many attacks.

Polling director Jon Cohen and staff researcher Alice Crites contributed to this report.

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