Republicans make gains in Senate, but Democrats hold on to slim majority

Americans cast their ballots Tuesday in House, Senate and statewide races.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 3, 2010; 1:50 AM

Democrats held on to their Senate majority by a slim margin Tuesday, although Republicans made significant gains, creating a fault line through Congress that will prevent either party from pushing through a partisan agenda.

While the House shifted to Republican control, Democrats were able to protect key Senate seats, including in West Virginia, Delaware and California, that had been in danger of slipping away. That was enough to preserve a legislative redoubt for President Obama.

In one of the tightest - and most symbolic - contests, Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid beat back a challenge from tea party favorite Sharron Angle after trailing her for weeks in public polls.

Republicans picked up at least six seats and perhaps as many as eight. The margin of Democratic control was to be determined by the outcome of elections in Colorado and Washington, which were still too close to call early Wednesday morning.

"I am going to be the leader of a large army after tonight," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told supporters at a GOP election-night party in downtown Washington. "What we are seeing is a huge case of buyer's remorse all over the country."

The Senate results sent a mixed message. Usually when a political earthquake hits Washington, both houses of Congress fall. But voters stopped short of handing the Republicans a full takeover and were conflicted about the type of candidates they preferred.

In some states, voters elected longtime political veterans. In other states, newcomers won on a pledge to shake up the status quo. The outcome makes for one of the most diverse Republican Senate conferences in years - and potentially a recipe for gridlock with chastened Democrats.

One GOP victor likely to gain quick renown is Rand Paul of Kentucky, who is positioning himself as the tea party movement's standard-bearer on Capitol Hill. Paul defied McConnell and other GOP leaders from the state by challenging party favorite Trey Grayson in the primary. Democrat Jack Conway attacked Paul as an extremist, but Paul won easily Tuesday.

Another potential rising star is Marco Rubio of Florida, a Cuban American whose parents were exiles and who could help Republicans mend frayed relations with Hispanic voters. Rubio beat Gov. Charlie Crist, who ran as an independent, and Democratic Rep. Kendrick Meek in a three-way race.

For either party, leading a narrowly divided Senate is a daunting proposition that can turn any given legislative vote into an ordeal of arm twisting and favor trading. Democrats have played that high-stakes game for two years, in a relentless struggle to reach the 60-vote threshold to break filibusters and pass legislation. But now the party can offer two excuses for falling short - a smaller majority and a Republican-led House.

Although the Republicans will remain in the minority, they are the ones who could face the bigger challenge in the new Senate. Over the past two years, McConnell and his GOP leadership team succeeded in keeping Republicans unified in opposition to just about every White House initiative. But the group will expand to include an eclectic collection of new lawmakers and has no clear path to deliver the GOP priorities the party has pledged to voters.

Early in the evening, the Republicans picked up seats in Indiana, where Dan Coats won back the Senate seat he gave up when he retired in 1998, and in Arkansas, where Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln, chair of the agriculture committee, lost to Rep. John Boozman, largely because of her support for Obama's health-care bill.

Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold, a liberal icon, was defeated in Wisconsin by businessman Ron Johnson, one of the few Republicans who drew support both from tea party groups and from the mainstream GOP. In other Republican victories, Rep. Mark Kirk narrowly won Obama's former Illinois Senate seat and former representative Pat Toomey will succeed Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.), who abandoned the Republican Party to become a Democrat after Obama's presidential election. Byron Dorgan, a Democrat from North Dakota, will be succeeded by Republican John Hoeven.

But in Delaware and Nevada, Republicans squandered a chance to pick up Senate seats by nominating GOP candidates who proved too out of the mainstream. In Delaware, Republican primary voters chose Christine O'Donnell instead of veteran Rep. Mike Castle as their nominee, and she attracted national ridicule over her dating history, financial struggles and colorful statements about masturbation and witchcraft. Now, Delaware's next senator will be Democrat Chris Coons.

Democrats got more good news when they retained the West Virginia seat long held by the late senator Robert C. Byrd. In West Virginia, where Obama's disapproval rating hovers at 69 percent, voters told pollsters they wanted to keep their popular Democratic governor, Joe Manchin, in his current job - but he wanted to be a senator. He pulled ahead in the final days and defeated wealthy mining company owner John Raese. He will serve for two years to fill Byrd's unexpired term.

And in Connecticut, state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal will succeed veteran Sen. Christopher Dodd (D) after defeating former World Wrestling Entertainment chief executive Linda McMahon. The Republican spent $50 million of her own money on the campaign and kept the race close, especially after press reports that Blumenthal had exaggerated claims about his Vietnam-era military service.

Democrats had hoped to pull off an upset in New Hampshire by claiming the seat of the retiring Sen. Judd Gregg (R) . But while former state attorney general Kelly Ayotte struggled in a heated Republican primary, she easily defeated Democratic Rep. Paul Hodes on Tuesday. And Democrats failed to capitalize on two Republican retirements in the Midwestern states of Ohio and Missouri. Former representative Rob Portman beat Lee Fisher in Ohio, and Rep. Roy Blunt defeated Secretary of State Robin Carnahan in Missouri.

Four incoming Senate freshmen are old Washington hands whose victories would seem to defy conventional wisdom that 2010 was the year of the outsider. After leaving the Senate, Coats worked as a lobbyist, representing oil companies and major banks. Boozman, who defeated the incumbent Lincoln in Arkansas, is himself a five-term congressman. Blunt was a member of House GOP leadership and a top K Street fundraiser. And Portman is a former congressman and chief U.S. trade negotiator under President George W. Bush.

At the other end of a spectrum is a faction of independent-minded conservatives, all of whom cruised to reelection Tuesday. This potentially pivotal group will gain a high-profile new member in Paul, whose father, Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.), is a fundraising powerhouse and perennial presidential candidate.

Sen. Tom Coburn, a fiscal hawk who is on friendly terms with Obama, defeated former professor Jim Rogers in Oklahoma. Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina, a leader along with Sarah Palin of the GOP's anti-establishment wing, beat Democratic unknown Alvin Greene. And Sen. David Vitter was reelected in Louisiana, defeating Democratic Rep. Charlie Melancon, who unsuccessfully sought to revive the "D.C. Madam" prostitution scandal that had ensnared Vitter.

DeMint hailed Rand Paul's victory as a repudiation of the GOP status quo, a veiled swipe at McConnell - and likely a warning shot signaling what the next two years will bring.

"Rand overcame difficult odds because he consistently stood up for conservative principles," DeMint said in a statement.

Paul told cheering supporters at a party in Bowling Green, Ky., "We've come to take our government back."

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