Democrats pummelled at polls but retain Senate as Tea Party notches string of high-profile victories across US
Barack Obama was today facing a harsh new US political reality in the wake of one of the worst Democratic defeats in recent history. In midterm election races across America, Republicans pummelled their opponents, capturing the House of Representatives and a fistful of Senate seats. It was a remarkable comeback from two years ago, when many experts expected the party to endure a long time in the political wilderness in the wake of Obama's emphatic 2008 presidential election victory.
Instead, Obama faces a hard political lesson after a hammering that wiped away the last vestiges of the euphoria that swept him to the White House. The political momentum has swung to the rightwing Tea Party movement, which energised the Republican base and notched up a string of high-profile victories.
The loss of the House is the first major setback Obama has faced in his relatively untroubled political rise from a community worker in Chicago to the presidency, and means that Nancy Pelosi – its first female Speaker – will give way to the Republican John Boehner. The swap of a liberal San Franciscan woman for a conservative Ohio man is a symbol of the deep shift in US politics heralded by the midterm results.
One consolation for the Democrats was that they held control of the Senate – but with only a slim majority after losing six seats. However, the party won key races in West Virginia and Nevada, where the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, also pulled off a surprise victory against the Tea Party darling Sharron Anglein in one of the most bitterly-fought contests of the campaign.
California seemed to act as a bulwark holding back the Republican tide. Not only did Senator Barbara Boxer defeat her Republican challenger, Carly Fiorina, but Jerry Brown beat Meg Whitman to wrest the California governorship back into Democratic hands after eight years of the 'Governator', Arnold Schwarzenegger.
However, despite these glimmers of Democratic hope, there was no denying the stark outcome. Republicans will now be able to use their position of power to wage a guerrilla war against Obama in the remaining two years of his presidential term – likely to ensure that the next 24 months are marked by rancorous partisan bickering and little in the way of new legislation. Indeed, Republicans may even try to undo substantial areas of Obama's legislative achievements, especially his landmark healthcare reforms. During the campaign, many Republican candidates vowed to take measures to stop his healthcare law from being funded.
Obama made a late-night call to Boehner to offer his congratulations and discuss working together to creating jobs and improving the economy. However, the words of a tearful and emotional Boehner early this morning suggested the two men would find little legislative purchase. "The people have sent an unmistakable message to the president – and that is 'change course,'" he said. "[To] the extent he is willing to do that, we will work with him.” He told supporters at a Washington hotel: "Our new majority will be prepared to do things differently. It starts with cutting spending instead of increasing it, reducing the size of government instead of increasing it, and reforming the way Congress works."
Although Obama remains favourite to secure re-election in 2012, last night's congressional defeats, as well as the loss of governorships, have removed his air of invincibility. He has suddenly become vulnerable to a strong Republican challenge, especially if the economy fails to recover fast enough. Exit polls yesterday showed that the number one issue for the electorate was the economy, with 86% saying they were concerned about it.
The rightwing Tea Party, which did not even exist less than two years ago, has benefited from this anger, and last night established itself as a force in US politics. Now prominent Tea Party-endorsed politicians have swept into positions of real influence, giving the rebel movement a taste of real power for the first time. Rand Paul, a Republican candidate backed by the Tea Party, won the Kentucky race for a place in the US Senate. In his victory speech, he said the US was witnessing a "Tea Party tidal wave". An evangelical advocate of small government, he will be a spokesman for the movement, especially from a platform in the Senate. He will be joined there by another Tea Party favourite, Marco Rubio, who won in Florida.
But there is no place in the Senate for the most written-about member of the Tea Party, Christine O'Donnell, who put out the now infamous political ad declaring she was not a witch. O'Donnell, a social conservative, was easily defeated in Delaware, a liberal state where a more mainstream Republican might have had a chance. But she was unapologetic, saying her candidacy had helped the Tea Party campaign to push the Republican party to the right. "The Republican party will never be the same, and that is a good thing," she added.
Obama is almost certain to be magnanimous at a White House press conference at lunchtime today, and a White House official said it was likely he would call on the Republicans to work with him. The president is about to set off on a 10-day visit to Asia, but one proposal is that he might invite Republicans to his retreat at Camp David for a summit on how to tackle the economy and other issues.
But both sides are preparing for a series of battles in Congress and in the courts. In a radio interview with a station in Chicago yesterday, Obama said: "My hope is that I can co-operate with Republicans." He went on to suggest that such co-operation was unlikely given the agenda the Republicans have already signalled. "That means that their desire to roll back healthcare reform, that they've already announced, or their desire to roll back financial regulatory reform, that they've already announced – that's going to be their agenda," he said.
Paul Harris and Ewen MacAskill, the Guardian