Rollicking Campaign Ends With GOP Poised For Gains

Democrats are bracing to lose control of the U.S. House to Republicans and barely cling to a majority in the Senate in Tuesday's midterm elections — a result many considered unimaginable two years ago when President Obama and his party swept to power in Washington.

But a virulent anti-Washington sentiment, embodied by the conservative Tea Party movement and fed by a fragile economy and alarm over sky-high national debt, has put the controlling party on the electoral ropes.

Waterford, Mich., Oct. 29: A sign at a Tea Party Express rally.

A sign at a Tea Party Express rally in Waterford, Mich., on Oct. 29. Bill Pugliano/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

As the hours in this often ugly, always surprising and historically expensive midterm campaign ticked down, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was still fighting for his electoral life in Nevada against Tea Party-fueled, Sarah Palin-endorsed Republican Sharron Angle.

In Illinois, Obama's old Senate seat appeared on the verge of going Republican — in a state the president won in 2008 with 62 percent of the vote. Tea Party-backed Senate candidates who upset party picks in Republican primaries seemed poised to prevail in at least three states, though likely not in Delaware. There, what had looked like a GOP win — and perhaps control of the Senate — has been turned into a race where polls show Democrat Chris Coons in the lead over Tea Party-favorite Christine O'Donnell.

In House races, Republicans are expected to take over with possibly dozens more seats than the 39 they need to control the chamber — a "bloodbath" for Democrats, predicts campaign analyst Stuart Rothenberg. Some are suggesting Republican gains could top 70.

Republicans are also expected to pick up at least a half-dozen governorships. Those gains come just before states, armed with new census data, begin their highly politicized redrawing of congressional district lines.

Reboot For Obama And Other Democrats

The bloodbath Rothenberg predicts would end Democrat Nancy Pelosi's nearly four-year reign as the nation's first female speaker of the House and very likely elevate to that top spot Ohio Rep. John Boehner, a onetime Newt Gingrich acolyte who was first elected to Congress in 1990 and now is minority leader.

The conservative Democratic "Blue Dog" coalition, comprising members largely from more moderate or Republican-leaning districts, is expected to be decimated — even though many Blue Dogs attempted to distance themselves from Obama and Pelosi, vilified nationally by Republicans.

On the GOP side of the aisle, insider Boehner faces the challenging task of managing a surge of eager new legislators with a Tea Party, smaller government mandate — and little patience.

Washington, Oct. 30: A sign at the Rally to Restore Sanity And/Or Fear

A sign at the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear in Washington on Oct. 30. Win McNamee/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Win McNamee/Getty Images

"It's going to be an interesting dynamic," says the understated Vin Weber, a former Republican representative from Minnesota who's now a Washington political strategist.

In the Senate, even if Democrats manage to hold power, their depleted numbers would dramatically change their calculations. With their current 59-41 majority (which counts two independent senators who caucus with them), Democratic leaders have faced the challenge of persuading only a handful of Republican senators to vote with them to achieve a 60-vote filibuster-proof majority.

In the coming Congress, the Senate could be closely if not evenly split — and it would take more than the assent of moderate Maine Republican Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins to push through legislation.

"More Republicans will lead to more bipartisanship," says Janet Mullins Grissom, who was current Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's chief of staff in the mid-1980s and served in President George H.W. Bush's administration. "There would be no chance for Democrats to pass legislation by simply picking off one or two Republicans."

The House and who was in control when Congress convened after the most recent election:

Years / Party in the Majority

2009-2011 / Democrats

2007-2009 / Democrats

2005-2007 / Republicans

2003-2005 / Republicans

2001-2003 / Republicans

1999-2001 / Republicans

1997-1999 / Republicans

1995-1997 / Republicans

1993-1995 / Democrats

1991-1993 / Democrats

Source: House.gov

Republican Party leaders are also wondering whether the GOP can woo to its caucus Ben Nelson, a conservative Nebraska Democrat.

But with both Boehner and McConnell, of Kentucky, already promising to block any presidential initiative going into the 2012 presidential campaign, Tuesday's election will no doubt mark the end of Obama's previously aggressive legislative agenda. That agenda included the controversial health care overhaul, an economic stimulus package and a redo of financial regulations.

The president, strategists say, can certainly wield his veto power to block legislation he opposes. But he'll most likely be limited to a "small ball" agenda of his own since the 2012 presidential race basically begins as soon as Tuesday's final votes are counted.

None Of The Above

Republicans have already been warning each other not to take Tuesday's results as a mandate. Even Boehner has cautioned that election night gatherings should not be characterized as celebrations.

After all, polls show that though the GOP's lower taxes/cut spending campaign message has resonated with voters, Republicans are viewed even more unfavorably than Democrats — though not by much.

In a recent Bloomberg national poll, 47 percent of those surveyed expressed a favorable view of Democrats, compared with 45 percent holding a favorable view of Republicans.

The Senate and who was in control when Congress convened after the most recent election:

Years / Party in the Majority

2009-2011 / Democrats

2007-2009 / Democrats

2005-2007 / Republicans

2003-2005 / Republicans

2001-2003 / 50-50 (GOP V.P. could break ties)

1999-2001 / Republicans

1997-1999 / Republicans

1995-1997 / Republicans

1993-1995 / Democrats

1991-1993 / Democrats

Source: Senate.gov

But the party's strategy of opposing en masse the initiatives of Obama and Democrats inoculated Republicans from much of the recent criticism about Washington's spending — even though the president, as he often reminds audiences, inherited from the Bush administration a $10.7 trillion debt, two wars and an economy on the verge of failure.

Another Bloomberg poll released last week suggested that a majority of likely voters harbored basic misconceptions about taxes and the economy under the Obama administration. Pollster J. Ann Selzer found that by a 2-to-1 margin, those surveyed mistakenly believed that under Obama, taxes have increased, the economy has shrunk and government money used to bail out banks won't be seen again.

The facts, says Selzer: The administration has cut middle-class taxes, the economy has grown over the past four quarters and the government insists it will make a profit in the Wall Street rescue payback.

Selzer's findings underscore the failure of Democrats to fashion a cogent, consistent national campaign argument. One Democratic pollster recently characterized the party's political case as "incoherent."

Erosion Of Dreams

Polls consistently have shown that the Democrats have lost ground with women and independents. The campaign bubbled with talk of the "Palin effect" and the "Tea Party effect." Charges of racism and anti-Muslim animus were lobbed. And Republicans successfully conflated the Bush-era Wall Street bailout with the Obama-era stimulus package.

The season provided a surfeit of bizarre moments, as the dynamics of unsettled voters and sick-of-Washington sentiment played out. There was Delaware's O'Donnell proclaiming "I'm not a witch" in her first campaign commercial, and Florida Rep. Alan Grayson calling his opponent "Taliban Dan." Nevada's Angle mused about how Latino students looked "a little Asian." An aide on California Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jerry Brown's campaign was overheard wondering whether to call his opponent a "whore."

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jerry Brown speaks during a campaign rally in Sand Diego. i i

California Attorney General and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jerry Brown speaks during a campaign rally at Cafe Coyote on Monday in San Diego. With one day to go until Election Day, Brown is wrapping up his three-day campaign trip throughout California in hopes of defeating his Republican challenger, former eBay CEO Meg Whitman. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jerry Brown speaks during a campaign rally in Sand Diego.

California Attorney General and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jerry Brown speaks during a campaign rally at Cafe Coyote on Monday in San Diego. With one day to go until Election Day, Brown is wrapping up his three-day campaign trip throughout California in hopes of defeating his Republican challenger, former eBay CEO Meg Whitman.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

There were repeated characterizations of Pelosi as a witch, and Obama as a socialist. Internet eruptions were common — from a GOP House candidate in Ohio pictured in photos dressed as a Nazi, to a Democratic House candidate in Virginia defending a woman's right to have some fun after saucy Christmas party photos of her turned up online.

Surprises were aplenty. Onetime heavy favorite Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski went from defeat in her party's primary at the hands of Tea Party favorite Joe Miller to write-in candidate with a chance to win on Tuesday (according to polls). Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, also once considered nearly a shoo-in to be his state's next senator, was caught from behind by state legislator Marco Rubio. Crist then abandoned his Republican Party and mounted an independent run.

There were a lot of sideshows. Fox News broadcaster and conservative commentator Glenn Beck staged his "Restoring Honor" rally on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Comedy Central hosts Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert held their "Restore Sanity And/Or Fear" rally with the Capitol building as a backdrop.

But the real story has always been about the ongoing recalibration of the American dream as millions of people focused on historically high government spending and an unemployment rate that has remained stubbornly close to 10 percent.

A stunning 53 percent of Americans surveyed recently by The Washington Post say they worry about making their next mortgage or rent payment. That anxiety is not unique to any party member, or to Tea Party movement adherents, or to progressives. And, fairly or not, it is what will drive results Tuesday when a newly divided government is expected to be ushered in.

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