A newly re-elected US President Barack Obama will once again deal with a divided Congress as Democrats handily retained control of the Senate, while Republicans kept their solid majority in the House of Representatives.
Republicans were dealt a bitter blow on Tuesday by the Democrats, who had more seats to defend and were once seen as vulnerable in the Senate, but two Republican candidates in Missouri and Indiana who had made damaging comments about rape and abortion were both defeated, and an incumbent Republican fell in liberal Massachusetts. Republicans also lost a seat in Maine, where an independent who is expected to caucus with the Democrats won, while picking up a Democrat-held seat in Nebraska.
More than US$2 billion was spent on the nasty fight for Congress. All 435 House seats were on the ballot and the Republicans retained control there, though the Democrats made a few gains. That means Obama will again have difficulty passing any ambitious pieces of legislation in his second term.
With almost 90 percent of the 435 House races called, Republicans had won 227 seats and were leading in nine more. For a majority in the chamber, a party must control 218 seats. Democrats had won 178 seats and were leading in 19 others. That means the party mix in the new House would resemble the current one, which Republicans control by 240 to 190, with five vacancies.
Only a dozen or so Senate races out of the 33 on the ballot on Tuesday were seen as competitive and almost all of those that were called — in Wisconsin, Virginia, Connecticut, Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Mexico and Florida — went the Democrats’ way. Democrats were assured of retaining or even increasing their 53-47 advantage in the Senate.
Control of the Senate at the very least gives Democrats a firewall against Republican attempts to overturn Obama’s healthcare reform law, before it is fully implemented in 2014.
Democrats began the year in a precarious position, defending 23 Senate seats and losing several retiring veterans, all while voter discontent lingered over the sluggish economy and Obama’s healthcare law, but the Republicans were undermined by some candidates who proved to be too conservative and the surprise retirement of Senator Olympia Snowe in Maine.
Snowe, a moderate, voiced her frustration with the gridlocked Congress when she announced her retirement earlier this year. Independent Angus King, a former governor, won a three-way race to replace her.
King has vowed to be a bridge between the parties and has not said whether he will caucus with the Democrats or Republicans. However, he is expected to side with the Democrats after Republican groups spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on ads attacking him.
Republicans will be left with only a few Senate seats in the northeast. In a marquee race in Massachusetts, Republican Senator Scott Brown, who managed to win the seat once held by the late Senator Edward Kennedy, was defeated by Democrat Elizabeth Warren, a favorite among liberals for her work as a consumer advocate.
Congress consistently rates low in public opinion surveys, but incumbents still tend to get re-elected. They benefit from a system that gives them huge financial advantages in their re-election bids and they enjoy support from voters who tend to favor their own lawmakers, even if they dislike Congress overall. Many incumbents in the House were also helped by the redrawing of district boundaries, which has just been completed.
After the last of the Senate races is decided, moderates from both parties in Maine, Connecticut, Nebraska, North Dakota, Virginia, Indiana and Massachusetts will be gone, while another in Montana could also lose.
One new moderate will be in Indiana, where Democrat Joe Donnelly won in a state carried by Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Donnelly replaces moderate veteran Senator Dick Lugar, who had been expected to easily win re-election, before losing a Republican primary to state treasurer Richard Mourdock, a darling of the Tea Party movement.
Mourdock came under withering criticism after saying in a debate that when pregnancy results from rape, it is “something God intended.”
In Missouri, another state won by Romney, Senator Claire McCaskill had been considered the most vulnerable Democratic incumbent, but she defeated another Tea Party-backed candidate, Representative Todd Akin, who won the Republican primary.
Akin was disowned by Republican leaders, including Romney, after he said in August that women’s bodies have ways of avoiding pregnancy in cases of what he called “legitimate rape.”
Two Democrats who rode a Democratic wave to the Senate in 2006 were elected to second terms — Sherrod Brown in Ohio and Bob Casey in Pennsylvania. In Virginia, Tim Kaine won a costly, close race against former Republican senator and governor George Allen after Democratic Senator Jim Webb decided not to seek re-election.
In Connecticut, Democrat Chris Murphy won the seat being vacated by retiring independent Joe Lieberman, the Democratic vice presidential candidate in 2000. Republicans had once hoped that the race would be won by Linda McMahon, the former head of World Wrestling Entertainment, who spent more than US$42 million of her own fortune on the race.
Some favorites of the Tea Party movement did well. Republican Ted Cruz, the son of a Cuban-born father, won the Senate race in Texas, while Deb Fischer won in Nebraska.
In the Southwest, Arizona Representative Jeff Flake won a tough race to capture a seat being vacated by a Republican. In Nevada, Republican Senator Dean Heller turned back a strong challenge from Democrat Shelley Berkley.
Senate races were still undecided early yesterday in two conservative western states, Montana and North Dakota. Republicans hope Representative Denny Rehberg will defeat Senator Jon Tester, who won a close race in 2006. In North Dakota, Republican Rick Berg was the slight favorite to defeat former state attorney general Heidi Heitkamp for the seat held by retiring Democratic Senator Kent Conrad.
Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Republican House Speaker John Boehner were likely to remain leaders of their chambers.
In the Senate, Democrats would remain nowhere near the 60-vote majority needed to easily pass legislation under Senate rules.
“Now that the election is over, it’s time to put politics aside and work together to find solutions,” Reid said.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said voters have not endorsed the “failures or excesses of the president’s first term,” but rather given him more time to finish the job.
“To the extent he wants to move to the political center, which is where the work gets done in a divided government, we’ll be there to meet him half way,” McConnell said.