Republicans seized control of the Senate on Tuesday, the party’s crowning achievement in an election night that proved to be a gut-punching defeat for Democrats across the board.
Republican Joni Ernst defeated Democrat Bruce Braley to win a Democratic-held seat in Iowa late in the evening, bringing Republicans to the magic number – 51 – needed to seize control of the upper chamber. The party held 45 seats going into Tuesday night.
Republicans also saw a number of high-profile and controversial governors returned to office, including Scott Walker in Wisconsin, Rick Scott in Florida, Paul LePage in Maine and Sam Brownback in Kansas. Greg Abbott, the Texas attorney general, routed Democrat Wendy Davis by more than 20 points to succeed Rick Perry as Texas governor. And true blue Maryland and Massachusetts both elected Republican governors.
But the real prize was the Senate, which Republicans last controlled in 2006.
Mitch McConnell, who defeated Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes earlier in the evening, will return to Washington as Senate majority leader. Democrat Harry Reid, the current majority leader, released a statement saying he had spoken to McConnell to congratulate him.
“The message from voters is clear: They want us to work together. I look forward to working with Senator McConnell to get things done for the middle class,” Reid said.
The NBC News national exit poll found three major factors driving the outcome: President Obama’s low approval ratings, a strong anti-government streak among many voters and frustration about the economy.
Republican candidates were successful in tying their Democratic opponents to the president and his policies. Obama’s job approval rating among voters is just 45%, down 9 points from when he won re-election and about the same as where it was during the 2010 midterms, where Obama famously proclaimed his party had taken a “shellacking.”
Democrats had a glimmer of good news as Sen. Jeanne Shaheen appeared to fend off a strong challenge from Republican Scott Brown to win re-election in New Hampshire. National and state Democratic activists were happy to dispatch with Brown, a former Massachusetts senator who lost to Democrat Elizabeth Warren in 2012.
But the formidable map of red state contests proved completely insurmountable for Democrats.
Two-term incumbent Mark Pryor fell to Republican challenger Tom Cotton – the first Senate incumbent of the evening to lose. And Democrats got more bad news from Colorado, where Republican Cory Gardner defeated incumbent Democrat Mark Udall in a state that has been trending blue for a decade. Udall tried to make the race a referendum on reproductive rights and Gardner’s opposition to abortion, a move that appeared to backfire.
Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan lost to Republican Thom Tillis in North Carolina. Republican David Perdue defeated Democrat Michelle Nunn in Georgia, clearing the 50% threshold to keep the race from going to a runoff. Nunn, the daughter of popular former Democratic Sen. Sam Nunn, had polled almost even with Perdue throughout the contest.
West Virginia voters, meanwhile, chose Republican Shelley Moore Capito to replace retiring 5-term Democrat Jay Rockefeller, and Republican Mike Rounds won a multi-candidate contest to replace retiring 3-term Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson in South Dakota. Montana elected Republican Steve Daines to succeed Democrat Max Baucus, who stepped down to earlier this year to become ambassador to China.
Even Virginia, a stalwart of the old South that has been trending Democratic in recent years, was home to a surprisingly close contest between incumbent Democratic Sen. Mark Warner and challenger Ed Gillespie, a former Republican National Committee chairman and aide to President George W. Bush. Warner ultimately managed to eke out a victory.
Louisiana’s Senate race is heading to a runoff in December. With a third party candidate on the ballot, neither incumbent Democrat Mary Landrieu nor her challenger, Republican Bill Cassidy, were able to hit the 50% threshold required by state law.
The night’s Republican wave, similar to the party’s strong showing in 2010, represented a strong repudiation of president Obama and his policies. The president called winners of the races Tuesday evening and planned to convene a meeting with House and Senate Republican leaders later this week in Washington. Obama will hold a White House news conference on Wednesday afternoon.
Exit polls found voters in a generally sour mood, expressing a deep lack of confidence in both Obama and Republicans in Congress.
Underscoring all these races was a sense of disillusionment – even anger – with both parties in Washington, the NBC News Exit Poll found. Most voters said they are either dissatisfied – 31% – or downright angry – 27% – with Obama, but Congressional Republicans fared just as poorly – 36% said they are dissatisfied, and 23% feel angry.
Overall, the NBC Exit poll found 79% of voters disapprove of the job Congress is doing – near the all time high 80% disapproval recorded in 1994.
Voting irregularities across the country likely didn’t help voters’ sour mood, with long lines, voting machine problems and confusion over newly-enacted voting restrictions in several states leading to confusion and frustration.