The Senate

Democrats keep majority, but GOP shifts landscape

Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 3, 2010

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 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.

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