By James Irwin
The Republican Party reclaimed a majority in the Senate Tuesday night for the first time since before the 2006 election, sweeping its way to victory in key battleground states in the Southeast and flipping at least seven seats in Congress’ upper chamber.
The GOP, which began the night with 45 Senate seats, will control at least 52 when the new Congress is sworn in Jan. 3. Republicans also will control at least 243 seats in the House of Representatives, up from 233 prior to Tuesday, the party’s largest majority since World War II.
“It was about as good a night as they could have asked for,” said Matthew Dallek, an associate professor at the George Washington University Graduate School of Political Management. “Even the endangered incumbent Republican governors—Sam Brownback in Kansas, Scott Walker in Wisconsin and Rick Scott in Florida—all won. That tells you this was a solid Republican sweep.”
It was the third consecutive midterm election in which a chamber of Congress flipped majority parties. In 2006, Democratic gains in the Senate and House gave them legislative control. In 2010, backed by the tea party movement, Republicans gained a majority of the House of Representatives.
“The hunger voters have to use their Congressional votes to punish the party in the White House—in 2006 punishing Bush and in 2010 and 2014 punishing Obama—has made this a really volatile environment,” Dr. Dallek said.
Big wins for GOP
Republicans scored early Senate wins in Kentucky, Arkansas and Colorado and forced a run-off in Louisiana they expect to win once Republican Rob Maness' votes swing over to Rep. Bill Cassidy (R) in a one-on-one race against Democrat incumbent Mary Landrieu.
But those states were an appetizer. Republican victories in Georgia—where David Perdue handily defeated Michelle Nunn in a race that seemed destined for a run-off—Iowa, North Carolina and Kansas helped turn Tuesday into a GOP rout.
“This was much more of an anti-Obama and anti-Democratic vote than anything else. There were a number of Republican incumbents where, if you were to see a massive anti-incumbent wave, they would have gone down. They all won,” Dr. Dallek said. “If anybody personifies incumbency it would be Mitch McConnell, and he prevailed easily. Look at Kansas. If any incumbent should have been vulnerable, it should have been Pat Roberts. And yet he prevailed. He was saved by this larger anti-Obama wave you are seeing.”
Mark Warner (D-Va.) held a double-digit lead in most polls leading into Election Day. But Republican challenger Ed Gillespie led Sen. Warner, B.A. '77, for most of the night until the Northern Virginia vote came in. As of Wednesday, Sen. Warner led Mr. Gillespie by 13,000 votes with 99 percent of Virginia counties reporting.
Meanwhile, in North Carolina, the late returns from the Charlotte area weren't enough for Kay Hagan (D) to keep her seat against Republican Thom Tillis. Sen. Hagan, like Sen. Warner, led in the polls leading up to Election Day.
“The race that was the most indicative of national trends was Warner,” Dr. Dallek said. “All the models had him winning easily—that it wasn't going to be close. The fact it is so close and he was seen as such a popular figure in the state and almost went down, is indicative of what happened everywhere else. Kay Hagan can give you the same indication. If you were going to see Democrats able to withstand the negative forces pushing against them, you might have seen her win.”
Senate Republicans vs. House Republicans?
The Republicans will control Congress. So, now what?
“In a way, in winning, they now have some major governing challenges,” Dr. Dallek said. “McConnell [the new Senate majority leader] is going to be whipsawed a little bit between a desire to show Republicans can govern and to enact the conservative Republican agenda—repealing Obamacare, blocking increase in the minimum wage and attaching riders for Keystone Pipeline.”
Among the biggest challenges for the GOP: how a party with a powerful conservative caucus at odds with its moderate wing can pass legislation among themselves, let alone get bills signed by the White House.
Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) has a little more leeway than before, Dr. Dallek said, meaning he can put bills on the floor and pass them with Republican-only votes despite losing some support within the party.
The Senate is a bit trickier.
“Because of the Senate rules, it’s very hard to get things done unless you have 60 votes,” Dr. Dallek said. “The Republicans, in some ways, have to find a way to work within their own chambers—the issue in the Senate is there are a few very strong, very conservative senators, including Ted Cruz. What they will do with this power—how many bills they will pass, what bills they will pass—are big questions.”