Triumphant Republicans today turned from counting their many wins and shell-shocked Democrats turned from counting their casualties to the next big challenge: trying to figure out how they will get anything done in what is now a two-party Washington.
President Obama called the outcome of Tuesday's midterm election a “shellacking”; Republicans called the results historic. But leaders of both parties agreed that the big task lying before them is how a Democratic White House can work with a decidedly more conservative Senate and House.
In the new Washington, the president said at a somber press conference, “no one party will be able to dictate where we go from here.” Divided government means “we must find common ground in order to make progress on some uncommonly difficult challenges.”
The president said he had told both presumptive Speaker John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in phone calls Tuesday night that “I am very eager to sit down with members of both parties and figure out how we can move forward together.”
For Republicans, the vote signaled the ascendance of all their criticisms of the president’s often far-reaching proposals.
“The Obama-Pelosi agenda is being rejected by the American people,” said Boehner this morning. “They want the president to change course.”
Boehner and Republican Whip Eric Cantor met with reporters briefly in the minority leader’s office, which he soon will be vacating for the more spacious Speaker’s suite. He cast Tuesday’s vote as “a mandate for Washington to reduce the size of government.”
At a later press conference, where he was joined by McConnell and Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, Boehner promised that “the new majority here in Congress will be the voice of the American people.”
He said that he and the president “discussed working together on the people’s priorities” during that congratulatory phone call from the White House. “We hope that he will continue to be willing to work with us” on the Republican priorities, he said.
McConnell stressed that the election fell short of a “full transfer” of power from Democrats to Republicans, calling it only “the first step.” He warned Democrats that “further change can happen in 2012” if they don’t vote with Republicans.
But he voiced optimism that the election results will bring more Democrats to his side, saying, “I anticipate enough Democrats to come in our direction on spending and debt that we can actually make progress.”
No one doubts that the challenge is daunting.
“I'm not suggesting this will be easy,” acknowledged the president. “I won't pretend that we will be able to bridge every difference or solve every disagreement. There's a reason we have two parties in this country. And both Democrats and Republicans... have certain beliefs and certain principles that each feels cannot be compromised.”
Already, the White House is braced for various assaults on all the follow-up measures and appropriations needed to implement Obama's signal accomplishment of health care reform.
Boehner told reporters that he will be cautious in plotting that assault, but he left no doubt he is working on it. He said he wants to “repeal this monstrosity and replace it with common-sense reforms.” But he said that will not happen until he can “lay the groundwork.”
For Obama, the need to compromise with newly powerful Republicans is a painful sign of just how much was changed by Tuesday’s balloting.
Both Washington and many state capitals were fundamentally altered by a national tidal wave that drew power from widespread voter discontent and swept Republicans into control of the House and closer to a majority in the Senate while capturing a record number of state legislatures and key governor's mansions.
Pointedly, Republicans stopped short of calling the results an embrace of their party. Appearing on CBS’s Early Show, Cantor said Republicans have “been given a second chance and a golden opportunity.”
Signaling the agenda for the upcoming Congress, Cantor said, “People want to see results. They want to see the government go on a diet just like they have.”
As speaker, Boehner will enjoy a majority beyond what he had hoped for when he started planning his 2010 strategy. With about a dozen races still too close to call, Republicans picked up at least 62 Democratic seats. It is the biggest power shift in 70 years.
Eleven House races remained too close to call -- all currently held by Democrats. The districts are Arizona-07, Arizona-08, California-11, California-20, Illinois-08, Kentucky-06, New York-25, Texas-27, Virginia-11, Washington-02 and Washington-09. Republican challengers held narrow leads in five of those contests.
In the Senate, Republicans won at least six Democratic-held seats -- Wisconsin, Arkansas, Pennsylvania, North Dakota, Indiana, and Illinois -- with the possibility of gaining two more from the three states still being contested. The too-close states are Colorado and Washington -- both held by Democrats -- and Alaska.
In Alaska, incumbent Sen. Lisa Murkowski appeared to be winning her long-shot bid to retain her seat through a write-in effort despite losing the GOP primary to a tea-party-backed foe. “It looks a little scary for Joe Miller,” acknowledged Sen. Jim DeMint to National Journal. The South Carolina Republican was a strong backer of Miller. A win for Murkowski, of course, does not alter the party breakdown in the Senate, though it does guarantee some awkward moments when Murkowski encounters the members of the GOP caucus who abandoned her.
In Colorado, Democratic incumbent Sen. Michael Bennet claimed victory, but Republican challenger Ken Buck has refused to concede and the Associated Press has yet to call the race. In Washington, the race remains a dead heat.
The results end an era of one-party government that was all too brief for Democrats, whose 2008 celebration is but a distant memory now. The Democratic casualty list is both deep and wide.
The party lost at least 11 governorships, with some of the worst losses coming in the industrial Midwest. With ominous implications for the 2012 presidential race and the upcoming redistricting, the losses included Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan. Illinois was still too close to call, but Democratic incumbent Pat Quinn was clinging to a narrow lead.
Those Democratic losses were compounded by sweeping Republican gains in the often overlooked battles for state legislative chambers. At least 19 chambers flipped to GOP control, giving Republicans their highest numbers since 1928, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
In elections shadowed by high unemployment, Democrats had very few victories to celebrate. They did hold Republicans short of the 10 wins they needed to gain control of the Senate. And they did prevail in the highest-profile contest, as Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada narrowly defeated tea party favorite Sharron Angle.
An obviously relieved Reid made the morning show rounds, pledging to work with the newly empowered Republicans.
“All of us -- all of us -- who are going to be in the Senate have to work together. That’s the message from the American people,” he said on CNN. He insisted he is “looking forward to that.”
He added, “I have a good relationship with Mitch McConnell, my Republican counterpart. I’ve known John Boehner for many years, and I think this is a time we need to set aside our speeches, and start rolling up our sleeves and have a little sweat on our brow.”
Newcomers who come to the Senate without such ties to the veterans will make the terrain more difficult to navigate. Tea party favorites Rand Paul in Kentucky and Marco Rubio in Florida easily defeated their Democratic rivals despite being cast as extremists. But Christine O'Donnell lost badly in Delaware, a state that Republicans had long thought would be in their column.
Even amid the celebrating, the tea party insurgents sent a message to a Republican establishment that had tried mightily to defeat them in primaries.
"We make a great mistake if we believe that tonight these results are somehow an embrace of the Republican Party," Rubio said. A rising GOP star, Rubio seized his new role as a party leader and potential presidential candidate, casting the results as "a second chance for Republicans to be what they said they were going to be not so long ago."