Republicans held all of their Senate seats left open by retirements and picked off several seats held by Democrats to capture at least six seats in the midterm election, giving them a louder voice in the legislative chamber most likely to shape President Obama’s agenda for the next two years.
The GOP’s tally could still grow with tight races in Colorado and Washington still undecided.
“The Democrats just couldn’t pile enough sandbags in front of Congress to prevent the giant wave of change the American people demanded,” Ron Bonjean, a GOP strategist, told The Washington Times.
Republicans won open Democratic seats in Illinois, Pennsylvania, Indiana and North Dakota and defeated incumbents Sens. Blanche Lincoln in Arkansas and Russ Feingold in Wisconsin, while holding on to seats in New Hampshire, Kansas, Kentucky, Ohio, Missouri and Florida. Meanwhile, Democrats held off strong Republican challenges in West Virginia and Nevada, where Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid defeated Republican nominee Sharron Angle, who won her party’s nod with strong “tea party” backing.
The only other undecided race was in the three-way Alaska race, where Lisa Murkowski appeared poised to win. Mrs. Murkowski forged a write-in campaign after Joe Miller, another tea party favorite, defeated her in the Republican primary.
Arguably the hardest defeats for Democrats came in Illinois, where they were unable to protect former President Obama’s former Senate seat, and in Pennsylvania, where Democrats hold a million-person edge in registered voters, and the party has enjoyed a series of successes in recent elections.
In Pennsylvania, former Rep. Pat Toomey defeated Democratic Rep. Joe Sestak in the race for the seat held by party-switching Sen. Arlen Specter. After being chased by Mr. Toomey from the Republican Party last year, Mr. Specter lost to Mr. Sestak in the Democratic primary.
Early in the evening, the Toomey campaign correctly predicted early on in the night that voter enthusiasm would trump Democrats registration advantage.
Christopher Borrick, a political science professor at Muhlenberg College, said “a win by a strongly conservative candidate in the form of Pat Toomey [signifies] how much things have changed in Pennsylvania and [symbolizes] the new political environment in the United States as a whole.”
Illinois Republican Sen.-elect Mark Kirk summed up his victory over state treasurer Alexi Giannoulias, a close political ally of President Obama, by saying, “A tsunami just hit the heartland.”
Despite last-ditch get-out-the-vote efforts from Mr. Obama and other party leaders, the results have sent a strong anti-incumbent message and give rise to a few new conservative voices, including Marco Rubio, another tea party-backed Republican candidate, won a resounding victory in the three-way Florida race over Gov. Charlie Crist, a Republican-turned-Independent, and Rep. Kendrick B. Meek, a Democrat.
A total 37 seats were up for grabs on Tuesday, and Republicans failed to achieve the net gain of 10 seats to call the shots in the upper chamber and to tap Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky as the new majority leader.
Former Sen. Dan Coats scored one of the first victories of the night for Republicans, besting Rep. Brad Ellsworth, a Democrat, in the race to replace outgoing Democratic Sen. Evan Bayh, a one-time presidential prospect who decided not to seek re-election earlier this year.
“We have every reason in Indiana to be proud - because, with your help, we have done our part by turning a U.S. Senate seat from one that fundamentally enabled the Obama regime to one that firmly opposes it,” said Mr. Coats, 67, who returns to the body in which he previously served from 1989 to 1999.
Another early GOP win came In Kentucky, where Republican Rand Paul, a strong tea party advocate, defeated state Attorney General Jack Conway in the contest for the seat held by outgoing Sen. Jim Bunning, who also decided not to seek re-election this year.
Later in the night, Democrats watched Republican Ron Johnson, a businessman, knock off Mr. Feingold, a three-term incumbent Sen. Russ Feingold in Wisconsin.
Meanwhile, state Attorney General Richard M. Blumenthal, a Democrat, won the seat of retiring Sen. Christopher J. Dodd in Connecticut, and New Castle County Executive Chris Coons won the race for Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s former seat in Delaware — both of which had been seen as potential pick-ups for the GOP.
Some good news to come out of the initial results for Democrats came in West Virginia, where Gov. Joe Manchin III defeated Republican businessman John Raese, allowing Democrats to keep the Senate seat of the late Robert C. Byrd, the Democrat who had held the seat since 1959 until his death in June.
With three competitive races still undecided, the final breakdown of the new Senate remain unclear. But what was clear is that voters disapproved of the performance of both parties and of the White House.
“Voters in this election cycle are doing the same exact thing they did in 2006 and 2008, voting against the party in power,” Scott Rasmussen, a political pollster, told The Times before the initial results were announced.
Exit polls showed and Mr. Rasmussen predicted the results would reflect a fundamental rejection of both parties and a “rejection of a bipartisan political elite that’s lost touch with the people that they are supposed to serve.”
Mr. Bonjean agreed.
“Americans are giving Republicans a chance to change the direction of the country by creating more jobs and growing the economy,” he said. “If Republicans don’t succeed, Americans will send their message of change by throwing them out in 2012.”
That toxic political environment helped breathe life into the tea-party movement, a mishmash of disgruntled voters from various political stripes that was largely driven by conservatives who claimed their political philosophy was derived from the Constitution.
The tea party helped produce some of the more colorful candidates of the campaign season, including Mr. Paul in Kentucky, and Christine O’Donnell in Delaware.
Those candidates were seeing mixed results: Ms. O’Donnell was easily defeated by Mr. Coons, while Mr. Paul celebrated his victory last night at a party in Bowling Green, Ky.
“The American people are unhappy with what’s going on in Washington. But tonight there’s a tea party tidal wave, and we’re sending a message to them,” Mr. Paul told supporters.
Among other notable GOP winners: Sen. John McCain in Arizona, Kelly Ayotte in New Hampshire, Rob Portman in Ohio and Rep. Roy Blunt in Missouri.
The results will help set the political tone for the next two years, determining whether Mr. Obama’s health care package stays intact and what other issues will emerge as priorities in the 2012 presidential election.
The next Congress also will likely take up controversial subjects such as immigration reform and the war in Afghanistan.