(New York Times)
American voters began heading to the polls Tuesday morning in elections that will recalibrate the balance of power in Washington and in state houses across the nation, with Republicans poised to make big gains, particularly in the House of Representatives where they expect to seize a majority, and Democrats eager to stem their losses and hold control of the Senate.
With polls showing the public disquieted over a weak economy and generally disapproving of how President Obama and the Democratic-controlled Congress are leading the country, Republicans seemed well within reach of capturing the 39 seats that they need to win a majority in the House, which Democrats now hold by a margin of 255 to 178, with two vacancies.
If they succeed, the Republicans would break the one-party lock that Democrats have held on Washington since Mr. Obama’s victory in 2008. They would also set new parameters for the remaining two years of the president’s term, potentially slamming the brakes on what has been, by any historical standard, a remarkably ambitious agenda, and forcing the administration to rethink many of its policies, especially on the economy.
In the Senate, where Democrats nominally hold 59 seats, including those of two independents aligned with them, the Republicans stood to make gains but not win the 10 seats they need to clinch a majority. Republicans seemed likely to pick up Democratic seats in North Dakota, Indiana and Arkansas, and were also fighting close battles in Colorado, Illinois, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Washington.
In all, 37 Senate seats are being voted on across the country on Tuesday. There are also governor’s races in 37 states, including California, Texas, Florida and New York, where the Democrat, Andrew M. Cuomo, seemed well-positioned to defeat the Republican, Carl P. Paladino, who also has strong support from Tea Party supporters.
Currently, Democrats hold 26 governorships and Republicans hold 24, but that balance is expected to tilt. Republicans are likely to make big gains, with candidates leading in polls in at least 10 states currently held by Democrats, including Kansas, Michigan, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Wyoming.
Both parties said that voter turnout, which typically runs about 40 percent nationally in a midterm year, would be a critical factor in Tuesday’s results. Polls show Republican voters substantially more energized and enthusiastic than Democrats, particularly among the Tea Party faithful, which are a factor in more than 130 races nationwide.
As the polls opened shortly before or after dawn in many states, candidates headed to their local polls trailed by photographers, while their campaigns fired off last-minute e-mails exhorting supporters to get out and cast their ballots. Phone banks continued to work in a frenzy, and ads continued to run on television.
In Ohio, a battleground state, Democrats sent out an e-mail congratulating volunteers for their early get-out-the-vote efforts. The message also included an important detail: “The weather forecast is sunny with highs in the 50s across the state.”
Former President Bill Clinton was calling radio programs in Ohio, on behalf of the Democratic governor, Ted Strickland, who is in a tough re-election fight.
And at the White House, Mr. Obama was also giving live Election Day radio interviews in a bid to lift support for Democratic candidates, including the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, who was locked in a tight race against Sharron Angle, the Republican candidate backed by the Tea Party.
The House Republican leader, John A. Boehner, who is the likely speaker if Republicans win a majority, planned to vote at home in West Chester, Ohio, before returning to Washington to watch the election returns. Mr. Boehner, campaigning in his home state in recent days, has said he expects a big night for Republicans as a result of a broad public backlash against Democrats and Mr. Obama’s agenda.
“There’s an uprising going on around this country,” Mr. Boehner said. “I have seen it all over my district, all over Ohio, and all over the other 150 American cities I have been in this year. People have had enough. They have had enough.”
In some races, the final tallies are not expected to be known for several days if not longer, particularly in the Alaska Senate race, where the incumbent, Lisa Murkowski, is running as a write-in candidate after losing the Republican primary.
But the voting on Tuesday will effectively cap what has been a bitterly fought and hugely expensive midterm election campaign that to a large degree has become a referendum on the economy, Mr. Obama and the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi of California, and an outlet of public frustration, with little focus on substantive issues beyond vague calls by many Republicans for smaller government and reduced spending.
While perhaps inevitable, that Mr. Obama might be the target of voter ire in a year when he is not on the ballot is a fascinating twist given that more than any other president in recent history he has sought to illustrate Congress as an equal branch of government, deferring to lawmakers on many of the details of the huge legislative efforts of the past two years, including the health care overhaul and tighter financial regulation.
In an e-mail to supporters on Tuesday morning, Senator John Cornyn of Texas, the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said Mr. Obama had allowed the Democratic Congress to spin out of control.
“Obama has broken promises about his policies, and also about the kind of leader he would be,” Mr. Cornyn wrote. “Instead of proposing practical solutions and building bipartisan consensus, Obama outsourced his entire domestic agenda to liberal power brokers in Congress. If we get the chance, Republicans will restore limited government to Washington.”
Amid the voter frustration over the economy and continuing high unemployment, Mr. Obama and Congressional Democrats found themselves struggling all year to take credit for the many legislative achievements of the past two years, including the economic stimulus program, the health care law and tougher financial regulation.
Republicans, meanwhile, were able to capitalize in the creeping sense among voters that government has grown too big and spent too much in recent years. The details were often immaterial. Mr. Boehner, who delivered Republican votes including his own for the big financial system bailout in 2008, has urged voters to oust Democratic incumbents to send Mr. Obama a message that they are tired of “all the bailouts.”
And Republican candidates have repeatedly called for reduced government spending, but without offering specific programs that would be subject to cuts. They have also loudly proclaimed a need to reduce the federal deficits while also advocating for a continuation of all of the Bush-era tax cuts, which would add another $4 trillion to the deficits over the next 10 years.
In the meantime, Democrats failed to articulate much vision for the future, arguing instead that Republicans simply wanted to turn the clock back to the Bush administration. Led by Mr. Obama they sought to reassure voters that the economy, while still weak, was improving slowly and steadily. Unemployment remains at nearly 10 percent or higher in many parts of the country.
And it is unclear if divided government will lead to greater compromise or simply more of the bitter partisanship that has characterized Washington in recent years. Either way, members of Congress have many weighty issues confronting them, and some will not wait until newly elected lawmakers take office in January.
All of the Bush era tax cuts will expire on Jan. 1 if Congress fails to act in a lame duck session. The temporary spending resolution to finance the federal government will expire in early December. And reports are expected around the same time, from the Pentagon on the possibility of eliminating the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on gay soldiers, and from the president’s debt commission on long-term fiscal recommendations.