Campaign 2014 surpassed its advance billing, as an electorate that was deeply unhappy with all its leaders handed the biggest rebuke to President Obama and the Democrats by giving Republicans control of the Senate. For Democrats, election night turned out far worse than any of them had feared.
At every turn in almost every state, the Republicans proved superior. They won nearly every competitive contest in states held by Democrats and held on to the states that had looked like they might go to the Democrats. Instead of slipping into the majority, the GOP stormed to power in the Senate.
That wasn’t all. In a year when incumbent governors in both parties were endangered, the Republicans prevailed and the Democrats did not, including in some of the bluest states in the nation.
Exit polls Tuesday portrayed an electorate that, while disgruntled, was not quite as Republican in its leaning as it was four years ago, when a tidal wave of dissatisfaction gave the GOP a historic victory. But if Democrats thought that might save them, their expectations proved groundless.
Republicans picked up Senate victories early and kept marching as the night went on. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, with his eye on becoming majority leader, was declared the winner minutes after the polls closed in Kentucky. Arkansas, once considered competitive, fell to the Republicans just as quickly when its polls closed.
So, too, did Montana and West Virginia — though those states were never in doubt — and South Dakota. When Colorado tipped into the GOP column and Republicans held hard-fought Georgia, the party clearly owned the momentum.
Then came victory in Kansas, a GOP-held state with a challenged incumbent, and later wins in North Carolina and Iowa. Republicans won not just in red states but in purple ones, too, a possible harbinger of how competitive the 2016 presidential election will be.
As midnight passed, one state still not called was Democratic-held Virginia, the surprise of the night — no one had had it on the endangered list.
Voters interviewed leaving the polls Tuesday offered negative opinions about almost everything, from the president and Congress to the Republican and Democratic parties to the state of the economy, the direction of the country and confidence in the federal government.
Compared with 2010, there was a small shift toward the Democrats among women, who were the focal point of many Democratic campaigns. Four years ago, Republicans won the votes of women by one percentage point. On Tuesday, women narrowly voted for Democrats, but not by enough to stave off GOP control of the Senate.
Independents have provided decisive votes in the past two midterm elections. In 2006, they swung dramatically to the Democrats, helping them take control of the House. They swung just as dramatically to the GOP in 2010. On Tuesday, independents were once again backing Republicans, though by a smaller margin than four years ago.
Americans older than 65, whose influence swells in midterm elections because they are reliable voters, made up a slightly larger share of the electorate Tuesday than in 2010. While the Republicans’ margin among them was smaller than four years ago, it proved enough to capture the toughest races.
The midterms. Live.
Suburban voters were a slightly larger share of this electorate and slightly less Republican than in 2010. White voters made up a slightly smaller proportion of the electorate and were slightly less Republican in their voting pattern. Conservatives went for Republicans by a margin of roughly 70 points, but they made up a smaller share of the electorate than four years ago.
The GOP’s margin among white college graduates, increasingly a Democratic target, was down. Hispanics voted even more overwhelmingly for Democrats on Tuesday than in 2010. The share of voters under 30 was no worse and possibly a tick higher Tuesday, and they voted for Democrats again by double digits.
None of that ultimately mattered. As has happened before, though many races seemed close as Election Day neared, they almost all fell in one direction.
The nature of voters’ unhappiness also was different Tuesday than in 2010. Seven in 10 said the economy’s condition was poor or not good, compared with 9 in 10 four years ago. In 2010, more than 6 in 10 voters cited the economy as the most important issue affecting their choice of candidates. On Tuesday, that dropped to just over 4 in 10.
Far fewer Americans than in 2010 said their personal financial situation was worse than it was two years ago. But many more said life for the next generation will be worse than it is for today’s Americans.
On health care, more people — a quarter — said it was their top issue than said so four years ago. Surprisingly, given the Republicans’ focus on the Affordable Care Act early in the year as a potential silver bullet, those who said health care was their most important issue backed Democrats by double digits.
But again, none of that proved helpful to the Democrats. More powerful forces were at work.
Democratic candidates did all they could to distance themselves from Obama this fall. On Tuesday, 55 percent of those who voted said they disapproved of his handling of the presidency. But the 44 percent approval was on the top edge of where he has hovered all year. Meanwhile, 8 in 10 voters said they disapproved of Congress, and both political parties were judged negatively.
Slightly more voters said the country is seriously off track than in 2010. And more voters said they wanted to send a message opposing Obama than said they wanted to send a message of support. Those anti-Obama voters spoke with a roar.
Throughout the year, the contest for power in the Senate had been a battle between fundamentals and intangibles.
Fundamentals favored the Republicans, from the traditional midterm advantage for the party that does not hold the White House to the low regard in which voters held the president. Added to that was a Senate map that was heavily tilted in favor of the GOP, so much so that it was always possible for Republicans to capture control simply by winning states carried by GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney in 2012.
Though winning in some of those red states would require defeating Democratic incumbents, both parties also were aware that in a polarized nation, states increasingly vote the same way in Senate elections as they do in presidential elections.
Offsetting those pluses were such intangibles as the quality of the candidates, the inherent advantages of incumbency, and an unprecedented Democratic investment designed to leverage the lessons and technology of Obama’s 2012 campaign to change the shape of the midterm electorate and get every voter possible to the polls.
That tension was at the heart of the drama that played out until Tuesday night. In the end, fundamentals won out, and Republicans had reason to celebrate. What they will do with their newly earned power is the question for the coming days.
For previous columns by Dan Balz, go to postpolitics.com.