Republicans' decisive win Tuesday is likely to ensure that President Obama’s final two years in office are marked by a level of gridlock and stagnation that surpasses even the last four turgid years. And it raises the question of how the GOP will handle its new power.
The GOP capitalized on Americans’ frustration with Washington to gain full control of Congress for the first time since 2006, while enlarging its House majority and winning several key governor's races.
Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, 72, who held off a strong challenge from Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes, is in line to be the new Senate majority leader.
In his victory speech, McConnell pledged to work for cooperation: “Just because we have a two-party system doesn’t mean we have to be in perpetual conflict,” he told supporters.
Still, Republicans have essentially refused to pass major legislation since taking the House in 2010, and, despite McConnell’s promises, the chances of getting anything significant accomplished are now even lower. That means pressing, national issues like immigration, climate change, the growing wage gap and infrastructure upgrades are set to remain on hold.
Instead, Obama will likely make frequent use of his veto pen in response to legislation passed by the GOP Congress. Whether that will include a repeal of Obamacare is uncertain, since few Republicans made the law a major campaign issue.
There were signs that the takeover of the Senate could embolden the GOP's tea party wing and push the party even further to the right. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas refused to say in an interview with CNN that he would back McConnell for majority leader. And in a statement, House Speaker John Boehner didn't even mention immigration as an issue that the Republican Congress might address.
"We are humbled by the responsibility the American people have placed with us, but this is not a time for celebration," said Boehner. "It's time for government to start getting results and implementing solutions to the challenges facing our country, starting with our still-struggling economy."
The loss of the Senate also puts at risk one power that Obama had largely continued to enjoy even after Republicans took the House in 2010: his ability to get judicial nominees confirmed. That means any potential vacancies on the U.S. Supreme Court could turn into protracted political battles.
The impact on the 2016 presidential race is less clear. Republicans’ increased ability to stymie Obama’s agenda could ratchet up voters’ discontent even further, making them more eager to make a change by handing the White House to the GOP. But it could also make Republicans appear to be part of the problem, especially if they overreach in an effort to play to their conservative base.
The night was almost as complete a Republican victory as the famous “thumping,” in Obama’s words, that the GOP inflicted on Democrats in 2010. Exit polls suggested the results were driven by the president’s low approval ratings, and by dissatisfaction with an economic recovery that, despite the numbers, many Americans still aren’t feeling.
On the bright side, Republicans elected two female senators, one black senator, and one black, female representative.
Many of the Senate races had appeared for much of the campaign to be headed for close finishes. And even going into election night, it looked very possible that control of the Senate wouldn’t be decided for weeks or months, with potentially decisive runoffs looming in Louisiana and Georgia, and Kansas independent Greg Orman declining to say which party he’d caucus with if elected.
But states like Kansas, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Iowa, and Colorado seemed to move en masse toward the GOP in the final weeks and days, with Republican candidates doing everything they could to make the contest about the president.
It’s not hard to see why. According to the NBC News national exit poll, the president’s approval rating was just 45% with voters, down nine points from when he won re-election two years ago.
Meanwhile, a whopping 70% of voters said the economy is not in good shape, with just 29% saying it’s doing well.
In races for governor, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker held off a challenge from Democrat Mary Burke, while Ohio’s John Kasich strolled to re-election. Those results put both men in potentially strong positions for 2016 presidential bids.
In Florida, Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, held off Democrat Charlie Crist, who had previously served as governor of the state as a moderate Republican. In Texas, Republican Attorney General Greg Abbott cruised to victory over Democratic state Sen. Wendy Davis — who once ignited her party’s hopes of making the country’s largest red-state competitive. In Illinois, Republican Bruce Rauner defeated incumbent Democrat Pat Quinn. And in a rare bright spot for Democrats, businessman Tom Wolf ousted the deeply unpopular Republican governor of Pennsylvania, Tom Corbett.