Two years after the historic election of Barack Obama, Republicans rebounded Tuesday night and gained control of the House of Representatives with a dominant showing in the 2010 midterm elections. A lethal combination of voter anxiety, a still-weak economy, anger at the president's health care reform bill and a surging tea party movement combined to sweep the Democrats out of power just four years after they had taken control of the chamber.
Republicans needed to win 39 of the Democrats' 255 seats to take back the House, and by Wednesday morning they had won at least 60, with most coming in districts held by moderate Democrats who have strained to distance themselves from their party in recent months. Those same districts held the keys to victory for the Democrats four years ago, when the party swept into power with a pickup of 31 seats. The last Republican takeover of the chamber came with the 1994 Republican Revolution, when the GOP won 52 seats, eight fewer than Tuesday night.
Among the casualties for the Democrats were some of their most senior and beloved members, including 28-year veteran Rep. John Spratt (S.C.), the chairman of the House Budget Committee, and Rep. Ike Skelton (Mo.), the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, who could not fend off his challenger in the his military-heavy district. Along with Rep. David Obey (Wisc.), the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee who announced his retirement this year in the face of sagging poll numbers, Spratt and Skelton were the leaders of the Democratic Old Guard that had won their power over decades and served in the chamber longer than many of their congressional staffers have been alive.
The Republican victories Tuesday night meant that Rep. John Boehner of Ohio, the current House minority leader, would almost certainly become the next speaker of the House and that the chamber's first female speaker, Nancy Pelosi, would lose her historic leadership post.
"This is not a time for celebration," an emotional Boehner told a packed ballroom as the results came in Tuesday night, breaking into tears at several points in his remarks to a packed ballroom. "It's a time to roll up our sleeves and go to work."
The speaker-to-be told the audience that his new Republican majority would pursue an agenda of cutting spending, reducing the size of government, and reforming the ways of congress. "The people's priorities will be our priorities," he said, before putting President Obama on notice. "The American people have sent an unmistakable message to President Obama tonight, and that message is: change course."
The first signs of trouble came early for the Democrats, when Rep. Rick Boucher, a 14-term moderate Democrat in Virginia's ninth district, took a surprise loss to Republican Morgan Griffith after holding back Republican challengers for years. Although Boucher voted against the Democrats' health care bill in 2009, he voted in favor of the Democrats' energy reform bill, complete with a cap-and-trade provision that critics said would drive up the cost of coal. Republicans believed that vote would cost Boucher his seat in his coal-heavy Southwest Virginia district and ran ads against him to make it happen.
Further west in Indiana, Rep. Baron Hill, a fifth-term Democrat and a member of the moderate Blue Dog coalition, lost to Republican lawyer Todd Young. Going into the race, Democrats called Hill's race a crucial toss-up that they needed to win to hold back a Republican tide. A loss in the district portended larger losses across the board for the party later in the night.
As the evening progressed, news of more Democratic losses pored across news tickers, with longtime incumbents and freshman going down from New England to the Deep South and west. Sophomore Rep. Carole Shea-Porter lost in New Hampshire and broke the seal for Republicans, who had been completely shut out of New England in 2008. In Virginia's fifth district, freshman Rep. Tom Perriello, who was a symbol of the Obama magic in 2008, went down in defeat days after the president stumped for him in a last-minute rally to save the seat. In Texas, even longtime Rep. Chet Edwards finally lost his seat after serving as a perennial target for a hungry GOP for years. In South Dakota, Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, the daughter of a storied political family in the state, was headily defeated by Kristi Noem, a 38-year old rising start for the GOP there.
With Republicans on the verge of a dominant victory, it was clear Tuesday night that the days of President Obama setting the congressional agenda were over. On the list of doomed initiatives favored by the White House: comprehensive immigration reform, climate-change legislation with a cap-and-trade mechanism, the Employee Free Choice Act (the union-backed item known as "card check"), and possibly the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," the policy banning gays from serving openly in the military. The latter is currently waiting for a Senate vote in the lame duck session as a part of the Defense Authorization Act.
In addition to redirecting the legislative agenda, Republicans will have the chairmanships of key committees in the House. Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) would likely take the chairman's gavel of the Government Oversight Committee, the panel empowered to investigate the Obama administration's federal agencies.
Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), a math whiz and member of the GOP's new leadership team known as the "Young Guns," will likely take over the House Budget Committee. From that post, Ryan is expected to fire round after round of numbers-driven talking points to undercut the Obama agenda and the budget blueprint behind it.
Before any results had come in Tuesday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats' top campaign strategist, Maryland Rep. Chris Van Hollen, insisted that their party would win the night, despite dire estimates from nonpartisan observers who have pegged likely losses for the Democrats at between 50 and 60 seats.
"We will be on pace to maintain the majority in the House of Representatives," Pelosi told reporters gathered at the Democratic National Committee's headquarters in Washington. "The people have to speak and this election will not be determined by the pundits."
Van Hollen defiantly predicted, "Millions of voters around the country are proving the Washington pundits absolutely wrong. . . . This thing is not over."