Republicans won control of the US House of Representatives in a landslide congressional election Tuesday that dealt a major blow to President Barack Obama just two years into his term in office.
While the conservative party made major inroads in the 100-member Senate, Obama’s left-leaning Democrats managed to hold a slim majority in the upper chamber.
Harry Reid, the top Democrat in the Senate, clung to his seat in a tight Nevada race, denying Republicans what would have been their biggest trophy of the night.
All 435 seats in the House and 37 seats in the Senate were decided by voters yesterday.
Republicans posted big gains among 37 governorships up for election.
The Republican takeover of the House marks the first time the party will control one of the two US chambers of Congress since 2006, and the curbed Senate majority will make it far more difficult for Obama to push his agenda through the legislature.
“The American people have sent an unmistakeable message to (Obama) tonight, and that message is ‘change course’,” Republican John Boehner, who is in line to become speaker of the House, told a victory rally at Republican headquarters in Washington.
The centre-right party appeared set to gain more than 50 seats in the 435-member lower chamber, easily exceeding the 39 seats needed to capture the House.
With several districts still too close to call, realclearpolitics.com estimated the total swing at 56 seats.
The Republican victories come amid intense voter frustration at Obama’s handling of the economy, with an unemployment rate that still sits at 9.6%.
Initial exit polls found that the still-sluggish US economy was the top concern for 62% of voters, according to pollster John Zogby.
Obama telephoned with Boehner and Mitch McConnell, the top Republican in the Senate. The president was “looking forward to working with (them) and the Republicans to find common ground, move the country forward and get things done for the American people,” White House spokesperson Robert Gibbs said.
The results were reminiscent of the 1994 mid-term election, when Republicans captured both the House, with a swing of 54 seats, and the Senate, two years into then-president Bill Clinton’s first term.
Needing to gain 10 seats to win control of the Senate, Republicans picked up at least five previously Democratic seats – in Pennsylvania, Indiana, Arkansas, Wisconsin and Illinois. Adding insult to injury for Obama, the Illinois loss was the seat he held in the Senate until his 2008 election to the presidency.
Results were mixed on the night for the grassroots Tea Party, a movement that arose out of anger against Obama’s policies and helped energise the conservative base for Republicans. Tea Party-backed Republicans won hotly contested Senate races in Florida and Kentucky.
“We’ve come to take our government back,” said Kentucky’s Rand Paul, a Tea Party favourite who defeated Democrat Jack Conway in the state’s Senate race.
In Florida, Republican Marco Rubio prevailed over sitting Governor Charlie Crist, a former Republican who waged an independent campaign for the Senate seat, and Democrat Kendrick Meek.
Despite the national tide against Democrats, Reid in Nevada managed to defeat Sharron Angle, another Tea Party hopeful.
In Delaware, Chris Coons defeated Tea Party-backed Republican candidate Christine O’Donnell, holding the seat once held by Vice-President Joe Biden.
Democrats managed to hold key Senate seats in California, Connecticut and West Virginia, preserving their control of the upper chamber of Congress, though with a much smaller majority.
West Virginia’s Governor Joe Manchin defeated Republican businessman John Reese in the tight Senate race, overcoming Obama’s deep unpopularity in the rural, working-class state with one of the highest poverty rates in the country.
The Republican Party’s takeover of the House, together with the Tea Party’s uncompromising stance on many issues, has bred predictions of legislative gridlock during Obama’s next two years in office leading up to the 2012 presidential elections.
Polls have shown major dissatisfaction with incumbents from both parties, with approval ratings of Congress below 20%.
“Dump incumbents” signs peppered the streets in and around Washington.
With many neck-and-neck races across the country and ballots counted across six time zones, it was likely to be a long night before full results were known in many states.
Some races could take days to sort out.
In Alaska, incumbent Lisa Murkowski appeared to be leading in early results. Having lost Republican renomination to a Tea Party challenger, she waged a write-in campaign, which could lead to a lengthy, complicated count and subsequent court battle.