This story was updated at 11:31 p.m. ET
Republicans have picked up the six seats they needed to retake control of the Senate, with major victories in North Carolina, Colorado and Arkansas, and added to their margin in the U.S. House, changing the political dynamic in Washington and complicating the legislative agenda for President Barack Obama’s final two years in the White House.
The GOP path to victory in the Senate ran through the South and then turned West, as Republican candidates posted larger than anticipated margins in races that political analysts thought might be headed for runoffs or long weeks of counting ballots.
One of them is North Carolina, where Republican state house speaker Thom Tillis unseated incumbent Kay Hagan, in part by linking her to the president and his low popularity ratings.
In Colorado, challenger Cory Gardner beat incumbent Colorado Sen. Mark Udall. Gardner entered the race earlier this year and immediately changed the dynamic in the swing state by raising a significant war chest and hitting Udall on his support for the Affordable Care Act and other Obama administration policies. Udall responded by pitching himself to female voters and stressing his support for reproductive rights. But that strategy backfired when the leading newspaper in the state, the Denver Post, endorsed Gardner.
Those wins follow Republican pickups in South Dakota, West Virginia, Montana and Arkansas, where Tom Cotton, another House member, soundly defeated Democratic incumbent Mark Pryor. In Louisiana, another Democratic incumbent, Sen. Mary Landrieu, will face a runoff in December, when political analysts say her chances are slim.
And in Georgia, businessman David Perdue fended off attacks about his record as a businessman and his support for outsourcing American jobs. Perdue defeated Democrat Michelle Nunn, whose father Sam served the state as a Democratic Senator and who helped her win endorsements and campaign cash. Nunn had tried to cast herself as a moderate, highlighting her work for former Republican President George H.W. Bush and his Points of Light Foundation. Political scientists in Georgia and across the nation had predicted the race would be too close to call, and steeled themselves for a runoff in January. But they were wrong, and Nunn conceded shortly after 11 p.m. Eastern Standard Time.
But a seat Republicans had pushed hard for late was New Hampshire, where incumbent Jeanne Shaheen beat back a strong challenge from Republican Scott Brown, who most recently was a Republican senator from Massachusetts.
The results put a smile on the face of Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell, in line to become the Senate Majority Leader next year, fulfilling a years-long dream. McConnell tonight defeated challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes by a wide margin. The race opened for McConnell, 72, in the final weeks of the campaign, as he emphasized his clout in the Senate. Grimes, Kentucky’s secretary of state, had tried to portray her opponent as a Washington insider who’d grown out of touch with the state. But Grimes suffered after she refused to say whether she had voted for the current president, Barack Obama, a misstep that drew national attention.
At his victory party, McConnell thanked supporters and adopted a measured tone, saying he and the White House “have an obligation to work together on issues where we can agree.”
“Every election is a job interview, a very long one,” McConnell said. “Just because we have a two-party system doesn’t mean we have to be in perpetual conflict.”
The Fight for the Senate
Republican Rep. Tom Cotton has defeated vulnerable Democratic incumbent Mark Pryor. Cotton is an Iraq War veteran and rising star in his party who had been trending upward in polls. Pryor was the lone remaining Democrat to represent the state in Congress, and despite campaign support from Arkansas native and former President Bill Clinton, he’s now out of a job.
In a critical victory for Democrats, incumbent Senator Jeanne Shaheen has prevailed after an unexpectedly difficult race against challenger Scott Brown. Brown, a former Republican senator from Massachusetts, repeatedly tied Shaheen to failings by the Obama administration. But Shaheen’s deep roots in New Hampshire politics proved too difficult for the newcomer to the Granite State.
GOP Sen. Mitch McConnell handily won his sixth term in office. McConnell, 72, emphasized his clout in the Senate and his support for the local coal industry. Challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes, Kentucky’s secretary of state, argued he was out of touch with voters and, in one ad, that he didn’t know how to brandish a hunting rifle. But Grimes paid a price for refusing to answer whether she voted for President Obama.
Neither candidate in the tight race for a Louisiana Senate seat has reached 50 percent in the polls, prompting a December runoff between Democratic incumbent Landrieu and Republican Cassidy.
Landrieu had been vying for a fourth term in office and focused her energy on get-out-the-vote efforts in New Orleans. But she couldn’t separate herself from the unpopularity of the White House. Now, political hands say Landrieu will be the clear underdog during the runoff in early December.
In the fight to replace retiring Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin, Republican Joni Ernst appears to have an edge. Ernst has endeared herself to Iowans with savvy TV ads depicting herself as at home on the farm. That’s an issue her opponent, Democrat Bruce Braley, fumbled when he appeared to disrespect the state’s farming tradition. Braley, a former trial lawyer who has served Iowa in the House since 2007, has also been cast as litigious and ornery — a characterization at odds with Iowa’s Midwestern politesse.
House Races Of Note
In the House, there’s far less suspense. Republicans currently enjoy a 234 to 201 majority and Democrats would need an overall pickup of 17 seats to seize control, a possibility that seems remote, at best. And if history is any guide: Midterm elections in a president’s second term typically see a loss of 25 seats for the president’s party, NPR’s Mahtesian says.
“The president’s low job approval rating has cast a shadow over the competitive landscape,” says Gonzales of the Rothenberg Political Report. “The question is, how many seats do Republicans gain and are Democrats digging themselves into a hole it will take them multiple [election] cycles to get out [of]?”
Gonzales saw a rare chance, too, for House Republicans to diversify the overwhelmingly white and male caucus. He cited a likely victory by Mia Love, an African-American running for a House seat in Utah, and two openly gay GOP candidates. Results are not yet in for Carl DeMaio in San Diego but Richard Tisei, the former majority leader of the state House in Massachusetts, has conceded to Democrat and former Marine officer Seth Moulton.
Most incumbents, analysts, say, are safe with a few prominent exceptions. One is Rep. Nick Rahall, a Democrat in West Virginia, who has been in the House since 1976. Rahall was ousted by Republican Evan Jenkins.
And in Georgia, John Barrow, the last white Democrat in the Deep South, lost to Republican Rick Allen.
New Hampshire Democrat Carol Shea-Porter, meanwhile, is fighting Republican opponent Frank Guinta for the third time in a row. She lost to him in 2010 but defeated him in 2012. The race revolves around her support for the Affordable Care Act, a law she says represents her proudest accomplishment.
And in Florida’s Panhandle, Democrat Gwen Graham has defeated two-time Republican incumbent Steve Southerland. Graham, a lawyer, enjoyed plenty of campaign cash and a boost from her father, retired senator and former Florida Gov. Bob Graham. Southerland, meanwhile, attracted controversy for a men-only fundraiser and other missteps on the trail.
Across The Statehouses
In some of the biggest gubernatorial races of the evening, Republicans had still more reason to cheer. Two incumbents, Rick Scott in Florida and Scott Walker in Wisconsin, posted wins over challengers who drew national media attention.
Emory’s Abramowitz echoes many political analysts when he calls the Florida gubernatorial race one of the most closely watched contests of the year. “Of all the governors’ races, if I had to single out one, it would be Florida because it’s such a big state and such a crucial state,” he says.
In Florida, Scott prevailed narrowly after a long, colorful and costly fight against opponent Charlie Crist. Scott earned his fortune in the health care industry before refashioning himself as “one tough nerd.” But alongside Crist, a former GOP governor who refashioned himself as a Democrat, Scott fought his own awkwardness in office.
And in Wisconsin, Walker won a second term and may have advanced his presidential aspirations in 2016. Walker rose to national prominence by picking and winning a fight against public employee unions in the state. Walker’s unpopularity was huge in the blue-state capital, Madison, but challenger Mary Burke could not find enough votes elsewhere to stop him.
In Kansas, Republican Gov. Sam Brownback is facing an unexpected challenge after his heavily promoted tax cuts put the state in an economic bind and alienated virtually all of Brownback’s GOP allies. Abramowitz says a decision to vote Brownback out of office “could be sending a message to the Republican Party that if you push too hard, too fast, you lose your constituency.”
And in Pennsylvania, beleaguered Republican incumbent Gov. Tom Corbett has been defeated by Democrat and businessman Tom Wolf. Corbett, a former state attorney general, served just one term but faced mounting criticism over his job performance as governor. Corbett had trailed in the polls all year.