Republicans catapulted back into relevance and power Tuesday, taking majority control of the House and winning governorships all over the country. Democrats fell in dozens of House races as voters registered their unhappiness with the recession-wracked economy and the direction of the country.
In a pendulum swing of historic proportions, Republicans picked up at least nine governorships in states now led by Democrats, including many that will be key to the 2012 presidential election, and held on to Florida. They also took Democratic Senate seats in Pennsylvania, Indiana, Arkansas, Wisconsin, North Dakota and Illinois. Republicans needed 39 new House seats to take control; they won at least 60.
House Minority Leader John Boehner, the speaker in waiting, teared up as he said it was time to "roll up our sleeves and go to work." He and other Republicans had framed the election as a referendum on President Obama, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and their agenda. Boehner said voters repudiated their ideas and warned Obama to heed the results.
"The American people have sent an unmistakable message to him tonight and that message is, 'Change course, " Boehner said. "We hope President Obama will now respect the will of the people, change course, and commit to making the changes they are demanding."
Obama called Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell Tuesday night, saying he would work with Republicans "to find common ground, move the country forward, and get things done for the American people," according to the White House.
Pelosi said in a statement that Democrats had taken "courageous action" to save the country from "the worst economic catastrophe since the Great Depression" and the election outcome "does not diminish the work we have done for the American people." She added that "we must all strive to find common ground to support the middle class, create jobs, reduce the deficit and move our nation forward."
Tea party money and energy fueled GOP candidates across the board, but may have cost the party the Senate by powering weak candidates to primary victories in Nevada and Delaware. The Senate was the one glimmer of light for Democrats. In addition to Nevada and Delaware, they held on to West Virginia, Connecticut, California and Colorado
, and were likely to keep Washington.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's defeat of tea party favorite Sharron Angle, a former state legislator who had unusual positions and made a number of stumbles in her campaign, was a major symbolic victory. Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) captured the mood when he compared Reid to Dracula and Lazarus. "He's unbreakable and unbeatable," Kerry said in a statement.
But while a few House Democrats prevailed in tight contests, and the party picked up GOP seats in Delaware and Louisiana, signs of Republican strength were evident all over. Veteran Democrats Chet Edwards of Texas, John Spratt of South Carolina, Ike Skelton of Missouri and James Oberstar of Minnesota lost. Reps. Rick Boucher and Tom Perriello lost in Virginia. Florida Rep. Alan Grayson
and New Hampshire Rep. Carol Shea-Porter also lost. And that was just a fraction of the Democratic carnage.
Just two years after losing the White House and four years after losing control of Congress, Republicans achieved a dramatic resurgence in Washington and in state capitals. They captured governorships in Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Mexico, Wisconsin, Wyoming, Kansas, Michigan, Oklahoma and Tennessee. Obama's friend Deval Patrick prevailed in his re-election bid for governor of Massachusetts and Democrats held on in Maryland, New Hampshire and Colorado.
Since Obama took office, Republicans have presented a united front against almost all of the laws enacted by Democrats. The tactic did not help their image -- recent polls show only about three in 10 people approve of their performance in Congress
. That's worse than ratings for Democrats
Yet exit polls showed
that there was plenty to fuel voter concerns and a Republican revival: persistent joblessness and economic insecurity, high government spending in the face of two wars and a deep recession, a soaring federal deficit, and a controversial new health care law greeted with wariness by some voters and utter hostility by others.
Leaders such as former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint and former House majority leader Dick Armey bolstered their sometimes unconventional favorites with money, manpower, and social networking, putting many of them over the top in their primaries and into contention this week. Angle's loss in Nevada and Christine O'Donnell's in Delaware prompted some soul-searching over lessons learned. "Candidate quality matters--even in a big wave," National Review editor Rich Lowry tweeted
Voter expert Michael McDonald of the United States Election Project
predicted that a record 90 million people would vote, with nearly 29 percent of them casting early ballots in person or by mail. Spending also set records for a midterm election. The nonpartisan Center for Response Politics estimated it would top $4 billion
. California Republican Meg Whitman alone spent more than $140 million
of her own money on a gubernatorial race and ended up losing to Attorney General -- and former governor -- Jerry Brown.
The 37 races for governor
were particularly crucial because governors will have to sign off on new House districts drawn with data from the 2010 Census, they will be key to phasing in (or trying to block) the new health law, and not least, because governors can be so helpful to presidential candidates.
The last factor prompted the Republican Governors Association -- headed by possible 2012 contender Haley Barbour -- to invest $49.5 million in ground operations in 10 swing states, and make no bones about why. The group said it was convinced the 2012 GOP presidential nominee "would have a much better opportunity to carry critical swing states if we have Republican governors in place promulgating good policy and building strong state parties."
The 10 states the RGA deems critical to 2012 are Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Obama won all of them in 2008 except Arizona. At the time, eight had Democratic governors. In 2012, all but Colorado will have GOP governors.
Turnout was the decisive factor in the year's many toss-up races, and Republicans determined to cut into Democratic control were counting on carrying the day. Democrats tried to goose their dispirited loyalists with rallies, door-knocking and ads, including one Obama made for the Democratic National Committee. If Republicans win, he tells a rally audience, "they will spend the next two years fighting for the very same policies that led to this recession in the first place. We cannot sit this one out
But the exit polls put Obama's job approval rating at 45 percent -- below the magic 50 percent that translates into decent coattails. Nor were other well known Democrats in a position to help other Democrats on the ballot. Pelosi has such low favorable ratings (a record low of 29 percent in a recent Gallup poll
) that Republicans found it effective to attack their opponents as "Pelosi Democrats."