WASHINGTON – Republicans gained a Senate seat in Indiana and tea party favorite Rand Paul coasted to victory in Kentucky in midterm elections Tuesday night, first fruits of a drive to break the Democrats’ grip on power in Congress.
Republicans also led for a pair of House seats in Democratic hands, and projected confidence they would succeed in winning a majority and installing Rep. John Boehner of Ohio as speaker.
All 435 seats in the House were on the ballot, plus 37 in the Senate in an election shadowed by recession power and stirred by a rebellion of tea party conservatives.
An additional 37 governors’ races gave Republicans ample opportunity for further gains halfway through President Barack Obama’s term.
Former Sen. Dan Coats easily dispatched Rep. Brad Ellsworth in Indiana to win back the seat he voluntarily gave up a dozen years ago.
In Kentucky, where Paul was making his first run for political office, he prevailed over Democrat Jack Conway.
The Indiana seat marked a gain for Republicans, and the Kentucky race was the first indication that voters were ready to embrace at least some of the Republican candidates whom Democrats had pilloried for months as being too extreme to win elections.
Interviews with voters revealed an extraordinarily sour electorate, stressed financially and poorly disposed toward the president, the political parties and the federal government.
About four in 10 voters said they were worse off financially than two years ago, according to preliminary exit poll results and pre-election polls. More than one in three said their votes were an expression of opposition to Obama, but more than half expressed negative views with both political parties. Roughly 40 percent of voters considered themselves supporters of the conservative tea party movement. By contrast., about three in four expressed negative views about the federal government. Less than half said they wanted the government to do more to solve problems.
The preliminary findings were based on Election Day and pre-election interviews with more than 9,000 voters.
“This is going to be a big day,” Boehner said as he voted near his home in West Chester, Ohio. For those who think the government is spending too much and bailing out too many, he said, “This is their opportunity to be heard.”
The president gave a series of radio interviews pleading with Democratic supporters not to sit on the sidelines. “I know things are still tough out there, but we finally have job growth again,” he said in one. “It is all at risk if people don’t turn out and vote today.”
While the president’s name was not on the ballot, his record and policies were. After nearly two years in power, he and congressional Democrats were saddled politically with ownership of an economy that was barely growing, 9.6 percent unemployment, a high rate of home foreclosures and personal bankruptcies, the residue of the worst recession since the 1930s.
“I will honestly say that I voted for him two years ago,” said Sally McCabe, 56, of Plymouth, Minn., stopping to cast her ballot on her way to work. “And I want my vote back.”
Engineer Jordan Howlett, 44, of Toms River, N.J., split his vote between both parties. “I still have faith in Obama and his vision,” he said, “though I think he’s strayed a little too far to the left. But the tea party types scare me.”
In Cleveland, Tim Crews, 42, said he measures Obama’s performance by the number of paying miles he drives in his delivery van. His miles have tripled to 9,000 a month. Crews said of the economy: “It’s moving. I know, because I’m moving it.” He voted accordingly.
Republicans needed to pick up 40 seats to regain a House majority they lost in 2006.
Less likely, a pickup of 10 would give them control of the Senate.
A Republican victory in either house would usher in a new era of divided government, complicate Obama’s ability to enact his proposals over the next two years and possibly force him to fight off attacks on health care legislation and other bills already signed into law.
Republicans assailed Democrats as puppets of Obama and, in the House, of Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. as well.
They pledged to cut taxes and federal spending in hopes of revitalizing the economy and reining in deficits. They were purposely vague with details, particularly on spending cuts, and Democrats argued their true agenda was to privatize Social Security and Medicare while eviscerating other programs.
In the Senate, Democratic Sens. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas and Russell Feingold of Wisconsin were among the top GOP targets.
In a handful of states, tea party-backed Republicans who upset establishment candidates in the primaries faced their final tests. The roster included Paul in Kentucky, Christine O’Donnell in Delaware, Marco Rubio in Florida, Ken Buck in Colorado, Joe Miller in Alaska and Sharron Angle in Nevada, challenger to Majority Leader Harry Reid in a state with 14.4 percent unemployment.
Some of the biggest states elected governors, including California, where Democrat Edmund G. Brown Jr., collided with Meg Whitman in his attempted return to the office he left more than a quarter-century ago. In New York, Andrew Cuomo ran for the office his father held for a dozen years.
In one of the year’s marquee races, Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland faced a strong challenge from former Rep. John Kasich in his bid for a new term in Ohio.
With so many contested races, and a Supreme Court ruling removing restrictions on political activity by corporations and unions, the price tag for the elections ran to the billions.
Much of the money paid for television advertisements that attacked candidates without letup, the sort of commercials that voters say they disdain but that polls find are effective.
Obama traveled to 14 states in the final month, some twice, in a bid to rekindle the enthusiasm of the young voters, liberals, blacks and independents whose ballots propelled him to the White House.
He said his administration had made a start cleaning up an economic mess left behind by Republicans, and he warned that returning the GOP to power risked more hardship.
Republicans, having overwhelmingly opposed Obama’s economic stimulus package and a landmark health care bill, hit even harder in the campaign.
They accused the president of engineering the government’s intrusion into every area of the economy, citing its involvement with two of the Big 3 U.S. automakers, legislation to rein in Wall Street and more.
Not that Republicans didn’t have problems of their own as the campaign began. Their candidate recruitment was aimed at filling spots on the ballot with well-known, experienced office holders.
The voters had other ideas, and made it clear quickly. In the first of a series of shock waves, tea party rebels dumped conservative three-term Sen. Bob Bennett at Utah’s Republican convention in May.
By the time the primaries were finished, six incumbents had fallen in both parties and both houses.
Senate Republicans made their peace with the rebels, necessary if they were to harness their energy for the fall campaign. They worked to soften the edges of candidates who had advocated politically risky cuts in federal programs, questioned the wisdom of civil rights laws or doubted the separation of church and state.
AP writers Thomas J. Sheeran in Cleveland, Rasha Madkour in Miami, Wayne Parry in Bayville, N.J., Bruce Shipkowski in Trenton, N.J., Mike Glover in Des Moines, Iowa, Thomas J. Sheeran in Parma Heights, Ohio, Jeff Baenen in Minneapolis, Deepti Hajela in New York;and Mark S. Smith in Washington contributed to this report.
The Associated Press