Republicans' Rout Rides On Voters' Mood For Change
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
And I'm Steve Inskeep.
Let's talk through last night's election results with our national political correspondent, Mara Liasson. She's been up all night.
MARA LIASSON: Hi, Steve.
INSKEEP: Okay. Republicans scored dramatic gains. They won many governors' races last night. They won many Senate seats and they captured the House of Representatives. Let's start with the House. What happened here?
LIASSON: They won a historic victory in the House. It wasn't as big a wave as some were predicting, but it's still was historic because it was the biggest in recent times. It was more than the 54 seats Newt Gingrich picked up in 1994.
The new speaker, the man who's going to be the speaker, John Boehner, was very careful last night, not to call his historic victory a revolution.
Representative JOHN BOEHNER (R-Ohio, Minority Leader): Frankly, this is not a time for celebration, not when one out of 10 of our fellow citizens is out of work, not when we've buried our children under a mountain of debt, and not when our Congress is held in such low esteem. This is a time to roll up our sleeves.
INSKEEP: Kind of an acknowledgement, there, that Republicans, as well as Democrats, were held in low esteem - although Republicans were the big winners last night.
LIASSON: Yes, I think they're very careful not to - don't, to gloat or be triumphant about this.
INSKEEP: So they win the House, not the Senate, but they did knock off a lot of Democratic Senate seats. What happened to their effort to knock off the Senate majority leader Harry Reid, though?
LIASSON: That was the biggest surprise of the night for me. He survived. This is what the Republicans called the Trophy Seat. They wanted to defeat him very badly, but Reid broke all the rules. He was terrifically unpopular at home -and unpopular incumbents are not supposed to win - a tremendous amount of money was spent against him.
But it looks like Reid had a very effective ground game that he's been building over many years. And he did, in the end, get the opponent he wanted: Tea Party-backed Sharron Angle, who had said a lot of things that he was able to paint as extreme. And in the end, he survived.
INSKEEP: So Sharron Angle, a Tea Party favorite did not win. But Rand Paul, a Tea Party favorite in Kentucky was one of many, many, many Republicans who did win last night.
Let's listen to a little bit of him.
Senator-Elect RAND PAUL (R, Kentucky): When I arrive in Washington, I will ask them, respectfully, to deliberate upon this: We are in the midst of a debt crisis, and the American people want to know why we have to balance our budget and they don't.
(Soundbite of cheering)
LIASSON: Paul replaced a retiring Republican and therefore didn't affect the balance of power in the Senate. But Republicans did pick up Senate seats from Democrats in Arkansas, Indiana, North Dakota, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Illinois, where the Democrats failed to hang onto President Obama's old Senate seat.
In Florida, Republican Marco Rubio won the Senate seat left open by retiring Republican George LeMieux in a very unusual three-way race against Florida Republican governor turned Independent, Charlie Crist, and Democratic Congressman Kendrick Meek.
Here's Rubio declaring victory.
Senator-Elect MARCO RUBIO (Republican, Florida): The United States of America is simply the single greatest nation in all of human history.
(Soundbite of cheering and applause)
Senator-Elect RUBIO: A place without equal in the history of all mankind. But we also know that something doesn't seem right. Our nation is headed in the wrong direction and both parties are to blame.
Unidentified Woman: Yes.
Unidentified Man: Yeah.
Senator-Elect RUBIO: And what Americans are looking for desperately are people that will go to Washington, D.C., and stand up to this agenda that is taking us in the wrong direction and offer a clear and genuine alternative.
(Soundbite of cheering and applause)
LIASSON: Rubio now becomes the most prominent elected Hispanic official in the country and a symbol of the GOP's new diversity. He was joined by GOP gubernatorial winners who are also Republican firsts: Indian-American Nikki Haley in South Carolina, Hispanics Brian Sandoval in Nevada and Susana Martinez in New Mexico.
In the governors' races, Democrats lost big, and suffered some particular disappointments, including the defeat of Governor Ted Strickland in the key electoral battleground of Ohio.
In the fight for the House Republicans won all over the country, giving a solid majority to the GOP, although not as big as the one enjoyed by outgoing speaker Nancy Pelosi. In his victory speech, Boehner described the results as a rebuke to the president and his policies.
Rep. BOEHNER: While our new majority will serve as your voice in the people's House, we must remember it's the president who sets the agenda for our government. The American people have sent an unmistakable message to him tonight, and that message is: Change course.
LIASSON: It was a stunning comeback for a party that, two years ago, was declared all but dead. Last night, all those big Democratic gains of 2006 and 2008 were wiped away, particularly in the Midwest, Mountain States and in New England. They were reversed by voters unhappy with the economy, with Congress and with the Democrats.
Voters like Phyllis Garcia of Wethersfield, Connecticut.
Ms. PHYLLIS GARCIA: I have never - and I've voted in quite a few elections - I have never voted Republican. But this time I felt that I had to vote for one or two candidates who were Republican.
LIASSON: And Bill Kirkby of Indianapolis who was unhappy with President Obama.
Mr. BILL KIRKBY: It's not good. A lot of people are standing around with their hands in their pocket. A lot of people out of work. He didn't keep his promise - at all.
LIASSON: But in Columbus, Ohio, Earnest Brown voted Democratic. He was willing to give the president more time.
Mr. EARNEST BROWN: Well, I think the reason why people are frustrated - they want to wake up the next morning and everything's fixed. That's not going to happen.
LIASSON: In the House, Democratic veterans like Missouri's Ike Skelton, South Carolina's John Spratt, and Pennsylvania's Paul Kanjorski were defeated. So were lots of newer Democrats - the so called majority makers elected in 2006 and '08. They included the Democrats cause celebre, Tom Perriello of Virginia -for whom President Obama made a special campaign appearance just last week. Mr. Obama is now the third president in a row to lose control of at least one house of Congress. These big pendulum swings are led by independent voters who've been moving back and forth between the two parties. Former Republican Congressman Tom Davis suggests wave elections are becoming the norm.
Mr. TOM DAVIS (Former Republican Congressman): This is the third straight wave election in a row. The old adage, all politics is local, doesn't apply to these races. These races were nationalized, and that has worked to the Republicans advantage.
LIASSON: But, Davis cautions, it's not that voters have decided the country is too left or too right, they just think it isn't working, and that's a warning sign for the new GOP majority.
Mr. DAVIS: You know, we can get any mandate. What we got is a second chance. Voters had thrown us out the last two times and they're saying, we're going to give you a second chance, but we come into this on probation.
INSKEEP: That's former Republican Congressman Tom Davis who spoke with our own Mara Liasson. Mara, what does it really mean if you arrive in Washington, you've got a majority in the House, and you don't have a mandate?
LIASSON: Well, you have to be very careful. It's a tough job for Republicans. They have to satisfy their Tea Party base which wants immediate action, no compromises on budget issues or health care. They have to balance that with what most voters want, which is progress on the deficit, and that means compromise and above all, action on the economy.
INSKEEP: And then there's the matter of the Senate, which is going to be a lot more closely divided this time.
LIASSON: Right, no one will have a functioning majority. That means that the Republicans can't even enact their agenda and send it to the president for a big veto fight. But it also means that they don't bear responsibility for having complete control of Congress, and that deprives the president of a foil and it complicates his job too, because he gets the worst of all possible worlds, subpoenas from the House, but no Republican Congress to hold accountable.
INSKEEP: Oh, because Bill Clinton, in the 1990s, was able to play off against the Republican Congress. This is more complicated than that for President Obama.
LIASSON: That's right.
INSKEEP: Mara, thanks very much for another long night of work.
LIASSON: Thank you.
INSKEEP: That's NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson.