After years of anti-Bush and pro-Obama surges, Republicans on Tuesday began to capture Senate seats in traditionally red states — the beginning of a swing toward what analysts said should be a natural GOP majority in the upper chamber.
Voter fatigue showed through at all levels, and only one-fifth of voters told exit pollsters that they had faith in government to do the right thing. Money, messaging and candidates also mattered in individual races.
But the tilt of the election playing field was determined early on, with the number of GOP-leaning states meaning it was going to be a good night for Republicans. The only remaining question was just how large a majority they would rack up in the House and how far they would extend their numbers in the Senate.
“We’re seeing the inevitable, irresistible drive of statistics to find its settling point, and these states are reverting back to what they are: Republican states electing statewide Republican officials,” said Michael McKenna, a Republican strategist who has tracked Senate trends.
Indeed, that was exactly what some voters said they were doing when they went to the polls in states such as Arkansas, which unseated a two-term incumbent Democrat, and in Montana, West Virginia and South Dakota, which replaced longtime Democratic senators who didn’t seek re-election and embraced Republicans in what was a calculated party recalibration.
“In the last presidential race, West Virginia was a red state. I think we should also have a red senator,” Rikki Twyford, 35, said as she cast her ballot in Charles Town for the Republican nominee, Rep. Shelley Moore Capito.
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West Virginia has been trending Republican for more than a decade and voted Republican in every presidential election since 2000, but both of its U.S. senators were Democrats.
One of those, Sen. Joe Manchin III, is the most conservative in the Senate. The other, Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV, is surrendering his seat after 30 years, and Democrats put up only token opposition.
Louisiana and Arkansas are also in the midst of a Republican transformation, trailing other Southern states by a decade or so. Lousiana’s Senate election is headed for a December runoff, where the Republican is favored, and Arkansas tossed out a two-term Democratic incumbent.
But Merle Black, a political scientist at Emory University, said Republicans shouldn’t count on a presumptive majority.
While Republicans have regional strongholds in the South and the Plains and mountains of the West, which account for 48 Senate seats, they have never held all of those seats at the same time. Mr. Black said that makes it tough to argue they have a built-in advantage.
He also said each election is fought on its own terms, and this year’s Republican gains could be reversed by the 2016 playing field.
“If the net gains are enough to produce a Republican majority in the Senate this year, two years from now the Senate could return to Democratic control,” he said. “American politics is so competitive at the level of the Senate that the ‘out’ party is only an election away from again becoming the majority.”
The Republican Party’s 24 stronghold states still exceed the 18 or so Democratic strongholds on the West Coast, the Northeast and the industrial Midwest. That leaves about eight purple states where control of the Senate is likely to be fought out over the next several election cycles.
Next cycle, Republicans have to defend seats in Pennsylvania and Illinois — states that are part of Democrats’ stronghold territory — as well as seats in the purple states of Ohio, Florida, Wisconsin, New Hampshire and Missouri. Democrats have to defend seats in the purple states of Colorado and Nevada.
John J. Pitney Jr., a politics professor at Claremont McKenna College in California, said this election year is “definitely going to be tough — not necessarily fatal — for Republicans.” He pointed to 2012, when Democrats had a challenging map but managed to gain seats.
Mr. Pitney said Senate elections seem to be on a six-year seesaw: The 2008 Democratic surge was met this year with a Republican recalibration, just as 2010’s Republican wave is likely to be tested in the next congressional elections.
“That’s the unique dynamic of Senate elections,” he said.