Republicans scored big victories on Tuesday and edged closer to taking control of the U.S. Senate in midterms elections that could tip the balance of power away from President Barack Obama for his remaining two years in office.
Voters unhappy with Obama, worried about the economy and weary of partisan gridlock in Washington set Republicans on what could be a course to a majority in both chambers of Congress for the first time since elections in 2006.
Republican Senate candidates picked up Democratic seats in Montana, Colorado, West Virginia, South Dakota and Arkansas – giving them five out of the six gains they need to control the 100-member chamber.
The outcome of the elections suggested Obama would face a tougher final two years in office, complicated by greater Republican power and influence in Washington. He called in congressional leaders for a post-election meeting on Friday.
Republican challenger Tom Cotton kicked off the Senate surge by defeating Democratic incumbent Mark Pryor in Arkansas, despite frantic get-out-the-vote efforts by former President Bill Clinton, who hails from Arkansas.
Along with Cotton, Republicans Shelley Moore Capito in West Virginia, Mike Rounds in South Dakota, Cory Gardner in Colorado and Steve Daines in Montana also won.
But Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana forced her tough re-election fight into a runoff against Republican Bill Cassidy in December. In another critical race, Republican David Perdue won by a large enough margin against Democrat Michelle Nunn to avoid a run-off in Georgia, CNN projected.
Election Day polling by Reuters/Ipsos found a dour mood among the electorate with less than one-third of voters believing the country is headed in the right direction.
Tuesday’s elections were deciding 36 senators, 36 state governors and all 435 members of the House of Representatives.
In another boost for Republicans, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky won his re-election battle, fending off Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes in a race that had been close for months until McConnell pulled away in the polls in recent days.
If Republicans go on to win the Senate, McConnell would replace Democrat Harry Reid as Senate majority leader, putting him in a powerful position on Capitol Hill. In his victory speech, McConnell said “it’s time to turn this country around.”
“Some things don’t change after tonight. I don’t expect the president to wake up tomorrow and view the world any differently than he did when he woke up this morning. He knows I won’t either. But we do have an obligation to work together on issues where we can agree,” he said.
Television networks projected the House will remain under the control of Republicans, who are expected to add to their 233-199 majority in the chamber.
If Republicans do take over the Senate, they would have a majority in both chambers of Congress, in what would be the most dramatic political shift since Obama entered the White House in early 2009. It might force the president to make more concessions to his Republican opponents than he would prefer.
Showing his willingness to reach out, Obama has invited Republican and Democratic leaders from both houses of Congress to a White House meeting on Friday.
In a key win for Democrats, Jeanne Shaheen won re-election in New Hampshire in what polls had forecast as a tight race, ABC projected.
A barometer for Democrats was whether they would be able to hold North Carolina, where incumbent Democratic Senator Kay Hagan had an early lead in her closely fought battle against Republican challenger Thom Tillis.
Obama, whose 40 percent approval rating made him unwelcome on the campaign trail for many fellow Democrats, cast the race as critical in a radio interview with Charlotte, North Carolina, station, the Artie and Fly Ty show.
“If we lose North Carolina then we lose the Senate. And if we lose the Senate then the Republicans are setting the agenda,” Obama said.
In Virginia, heavily favored Democratic incumbent Senator Mark Warner found himself in a surprisingly close fight against Republican challenger Ed Gillespie, with much of the vote counted.
In the most closely watched governors’ races, Florida’s Republican Governor Rick Scott edged out Democrat Charlie Crist, and Republican Scott Walker survived a challenge from Democrat Mary Burke in Wisconsin.
The White House tried to play down the prospect of sharp changes in strategy after the election, saying Obama would seek common ground with Congress on areas like trade and infrastructure.
On other issues, like climate change and immigration reform, Obama is likely to continue to take actions on his own. By the end of the year, he is expected to announce executive action to defer deportations for some undocumented immigrants.
Jay Carney, Obama’s former spokesman, said he expects Obama to make an “all-out push” on his priorities regardless of the makeup of Congress.
Obama spent Election Day in meetings with advisers and planned to watch election returns at the White House on Tuesday night.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the election was not a referendum on Obama’s policies. “The vast majority of voters across the country are making decisions in this election based on the candidates themselves, and not on President Obama,” he said, citing polling data.
Whatever the case, Obama will face pressure to make changes at the White House if his party loses the Senate. A Reuters/Ipsos poll showed 75 percent of respondents believe the administration needs to “rethink” how it approaches major issues facing the United States (bit.ly/1ph8sLs). Sixty-four percent said Obama should replace some of his senior staff after the election (bit.ly/1rTVVbb).
(Additional reporting by Jeff Mason, Susan Heavey, Tim Ryan and Ian Simpson in Washington; Marti Maguire in Raleigh, North Carolina; David Beasley in Atlanta; Steve Bittenbender in Louisville, Kentucky; Barbara Liston in Orlando, Bill Cotterell in Tallahassee and Zachary Fagenson in Miami Beach; Colleen Jenkins in Winston-Salem, North Carolina; Jonathan Kaminsky in New Orleans; Editing by Frances Kerry)