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Politics / election

America Takes Its Midterms

A Republican House and a Democratic Senate are likely.

Illinois Democratic Senate candidate Alexi Giannoulias marks his ballot in Chicago, the president's home town, and part of a state that's turning from Blue to Purple.(Brian Kersey/Getty Images)

photo of Jim O'Sullivan
November 2, 2010

Updated at 4:05 p.m. on November 2.

As Republicans and Democrats exerted the final ounce of vote-rustling efforts that could spell the difference between historic GOP gains and more modest wounds to President Obama, both parties worked to spin results that wouldn’t be known for several hours, and reports of voting irregularities popped up in several pivotal states.

While Republicans are poised to win big in today’s midterms, taking over the House and making gains in the Senate, some party leaders are warning that voters still wouldn’t be signing off wholesale on the GOP agenda.


Reinforcing the party’s theme that the election will serve as a referendum, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour said Republican gains would be a “repudiation” of President Obama’s policies -- but not exactly an embrace of the GOP, which has trod lightly other than issuing promises to impose spending checks.

The longtime GOP powerbroker and current head of the Republican Governors Association said this afternoon that voters’ message to the GOP would be: “Hey, guys, don’t take this that we’re turning everything over to you. We’re going to give you a chance, another chance, to earn our trust.”

Democrats argue that if the electorate is on the verge of so thoroughly rejecting the policies of a president they elected convincingly just two years ago, it speaks less to core disagreements than to the depth of voters’ misunderstanding of the impact of the administration’s more far-reaching legislative exertions.

Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, a Democrat who has largely backed the administration’s agenda while criticizing its communications strategy, said during an MSNBC morning interview, “We got beat out of the gate on health care on message.... Same thing with stimulus.”

Midterm elections tend to side against sitting presidents, a trend Democrats have often cited as they gird for what election analysts say could build into a historic backlash, helping Republicans gain back the ground they lost in 2006 and 2008.

Aiming to recover some of the footing many Democrats expect to lose Tuesday, Obama will deliver a post-election address Wednesday at 1 p.m. from the East Room, the White House said.

Rendell sounded approving. “We’ve got to use the president more. He’s a great communicator. If tonight turns out to be better than expected for Democrats, it’s because the president got energized” as the election approached, Rendell said, asserting that the party’s base had “woken up.”

Operatives in both parties were dismissive of early turnout conjectures, saying the patchwork quality of such reports rendered them unreliable -- and made it difficult to distinguish which party could score points.

“You get totally different answers from completely different states, and I never put any stock in any anecdotal evidence,” said Republican pollster Whit Ayres. “It could be Democratic precincts in Tennessee that are low and Republican precincts in South Carolina that are high.”

Still, both sides were eager to drive the idea that their voters were coming out in vital swaths of the country, Republicans playing up rural Illinois turnout and Democrats hyping an early voting surge in Florida among African Americans.

Elections officials said there had been a rash of voting irregularities, most notably a shooting at a New Hampshire polling station and school that reportedly left one person dead and one wounded. State police said the suspect was in custody.

The Pittsburg, N.H., polling place had reportedly reopened this afternoon after being cordoned off for about two hours.

In Missouri, a voter “look-up system” had malfunctioned, officials said, causing delays in the verification process. In Wisconsin, the state’s government accountability board posted clarifications that state law did not require photo identification to vote, after scattered complaints. Minnesota Republicans asked state officials to look into reports of jammed ballot machines in several municipalities.

On balance, though, the National Association of Secretaries of State said the election had been proceeding with relatively few bumps. 

“It’s been very quiet at the NASS office this afternoon, which indicates that voting is going very smoothly in most states,” said Kay Stimson, spokeswoman for the National Association of Secretaries of State.

Stimson said this year’s election appeared to offer voters more information and protection resources than most midterms.

Obama, who has campaigned sporadically, stayed primarily on the radio today, including an interview on American Idol host Ryan Seacrest’s radio show in which he hewed to the appeals he’s offered to his base among young adults drawn to voting by his presidential campaign.

"This is such a critical election, because we're living in a huge moment of change in this country,” Obama told Seacrest. “I mean, we’ve gone through two of the toughest years we’ve had since the Great Depression, a huge financial crisis, a very bad recession. And, you know, despite that, I think I am optimistic about this country because of young people, because of their energy, because of their enthusiasm, because of their ideas. But, you know, none of that will make a difference if they're not participating."

Obama told a Chicago radio station in a separate interview he had “no regrets at all” about his agenda.

“How well I’m able to move my agenda forward over the next couple years is going to depend in part on folks back home having my back,” Obama said on WCGI. Illinois has competitive gubernatorial and Senate races.

The House is likely to change party control, with projections that more than 100 Democratic seats could be vulnerable. Republicans need only 39 additional seats to take over the Speaker's gavel, a benchmark most top handicappers believe they will exceed. Democrats in conservative districts are considered particularly vulnerable, but even liberal stalwarts such as Barney Frank, the 14-term Democrat from Massachusetts, are having to worry about reelection for the first time in years.

Minority Leader John Boehner is positioned to replace Speaker Nancy Pelosi, equipped with an agenda of tax cuts and curbed spending. Top Republicans have also vowed to chisel at the unpopular health care expansion.

While Pelosi faces a safe path to her House seat, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid faces a far sterner test in Nevada, with tea party GOP nominee Sharron Angle holding a slim lead over the four-term Democrat. That race is loaded with both practical and symbolic freight for both parties, with Republicans salivating over the prospect of Reid’s scalp and Democrats nervously eyeing the possible toppling of a second straight Senate Democratic leader.

In the Senate, 37 seats are up this year, with Republicans needing to wrest 10 for a majority. Democrats would retain control if the count is 50-50 because Vice President Joe Biden would wield the tie-breaking vote.

Thirty-seven states will elect governors, and if polls are to be believed, a majority of those will be Republicans, with the Cook Political Report ranking just two as solidly Democratic, one as likely Democratic, and three leaning that way. Eight are regarded as solidly GOP, five likely GOP, and seven leaning that way. The remaining 11 are toss-ups.

Strategists in both parties are eyeing eastern elections like West Virginia's Senate race for telltales of how the remainder of the night will proceed. There, Democratic Gov. Joe Manchin, after struggling to unshackle himself from Obama’s low ratings in the state, has opened a small lead over Republican John Raese -- largely by distancing himself from the president, including a TV ad in which he shot an ersatz cap-and-trade bill with a rifle.

Democratic National Committee Chairman Tim Kaine called the Mountain State a must-win for the GOP if it hopes to take the Senate.

“I think the Republicans have to win that to have a credible shot of getting the Senate.... If they can’t win West Virginia, they can’t do it.”

Both parties have been arming for weeks to deploy operatives and attorneys to recounts across the country. The concern on the part of Democrats and Republicans has been especially great because polls have been volatile this year and no one can be certain where litigation is likely to emerge.

One Republican source estimated that there could be up to 20 House recounts, including some in districts long considered safely Democratic.

It's been a year of big money flowing into political races. One active group, the liberal, expects to have spent at least $28 million on the midterms. Political director Adam Ruben says MoveOn has been targeting 59 races, trying to funnel activists into campaign offices.

“Basically, we’re not doing our own actual voter contact,” he said. “Our whole effort is to drive our members into the campaigns to integrate with their voter contact programs and help staff the volunteer shifts that are needed to get out the vote.”

While political junkies figure to take in election results well into the night on both coasts, some uncertainty will likely linger. The three-way Senate race in Alaska could leave the Senate's final partisan tally for the next Congress in doubt for weeks, as elections officials grapple with the write-in votes that will be cast for Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who lost the GOP primary to Joe Miller. Democrat Scott McAdams is the third candidate.

If conventional wisdom coalesces into reality, it will mark the third straight election in which the House has undergone dramatic change, reflecting both voter mood swings and the inability of the parties to find an appealing balance while governing.

"It suggests to me that neither party can deliver a knockout punch and stabilize the country around a center-right, center-left set of alternatives," said Bryan Jones, a political science professor at the University of Texas. "That has been the traditional pattern. Now we’re seeing it a little more volatile. Soon we'll find out if it's a lot more volatile."

Jones said Democrats would have to confront a decision about whether to shift toward a triangulation-style approach to governing like the one deployed by President Clinton, or whether to move toward a model preferred in recent cycles by Republicans: jazzing the base with defining, hot-button issues.

Boehner in the closing days has pounded Obama for warning that Democrats could suffer if Latinos sit out the election rather than deciding, “We’re gonna punish our enemies.”

At an Ohio rally Sunday, Boehner questioned a president referring to Americans with that term, saying, “Well, Mr. President, I have a word to describe those people. Those people who have the audacity to speak up against the big government, the people who have the audacity to go out and support our Constitution, the people who are out there every day fighting for a limited government that has served our country so well for 200 years. And Mr. President, that word isn't enemies. They're patriots.”

Obama said Monday he probably should have chosen the word “opponents.”

Republicans have taken pains to avoid the appearance of drape-measuring. While Boehner has quietly been plotting the first steps of a new majority, top Republicans refused even to bill their election night event at Washington’s Grand Hyatt Hotel as a “party,” instead labeling it an “Election Night Results Watch.”

Sen. John Cornyn, the Texas Republican who chairs the National Republican Senatorial Committee, stopped short this morning of forecasting a GOP takeover in the Senate.

“We're going to pick up a number of seats," Cornyn said during a Fox and Friends appearance. "We're going to come close. What I don't want to do is overpromise and underdeliver, because we're going to have a very good day, but what I don't want to do is say we're going to get back in the majority and we don't and have people who are disappointed and say we've had a bad day when we haven't.”

“What I think the pollsters have underestimated is the intensity of the voters and the enthusiasm gap, so to speak, because most of these polls are modeled on turnout models which I think will be surpassed by the enthusiasm and turnout in this election," Cornyn said. "So even if we're in the margin of error, I think we're going to be very competitive and probably pick up those seats.”

Former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld, who tacked to the right in waging an unsuccessful bid for the New York governorship in 2006, said Republicans are benefiting from an overarching message of fiscal prudence.

“It’s quite palpably what’s fueling the tea party movement,” Weld told National Journal during a telephone interview this morning. “The tea party voters are not social-issue voters. They’re spending-fatigue voters, tax-fatigue voters, and size-of-government-fatigue voters.”

That ideological coherence, steering clear of controversial social issues like those that have sizzled in past elections, could prove a useful discipline for the party should it come into power, Weld said. He called Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell “pretty careful guys” who would be wary of “overreaching.”

While the two parties -- and, in some cases, three parties -- split over genuine policy disagreements, this election cycle will likely be remembered largely for its nasty tone. In New York, Republican gubernatorial nominee Carl Paladino had a tense nose-to-nose with a reporter, threatening to “take him out.” California Democratic gubernatorial nominee Jerry Brown’s campaign was caught in a voice mail suggesting Brown call GOP nominee Meg Whitman a “whore” for courting police unions.

Last week, websites and cable TV seized on a clip showing a supporter of Rand Paul, the tea party GOP nominee in Kentucky, stomping on the head of a liberal demonstrator who reportedly had tried to confront Paul. In Rhode Island, after Obama ducked lending him an endorsement out of deference to independent gubernatorial candidate Lincoln Chafee, Democratic gubernatorial nominee Frank Caprio said Obama could take his endorsement and “shove it.”

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