The Republicans strike back

“TONIGHT,” exulted Rand Paul, the victorious Republican candidate for the Senate from Kentucky, “there’s a tea-party tidal wave.” And so, in almost all respects, it was: the Republicans, fired up by the enthusiasm of tea-party activists, look set to pick up some 60 seats in the House of Representatives. That makes it the biggest upheaval in the House since 1948, exceeding even the Republican landslide of 1994. It entirely undoes the Democrats’ gains of 2006 and 2008, and serves as a massive rebuke to Barack Obama. The president can no longer count on a Democratic majority in Congress to enact his agenda; he will now have to recast his presidency in the light of America’s abrupt jerk to the right. The Democrats held the Senate, but by a much diminished margin. That constitutes the slenderest of silver linings for the party, in an otherwise dismal night. Races that had been considered toss-ups, in such states as California, Nevada and West Virginia, broke their way in the end. Despite Mr Paul’s exuberance, prominent tea-party candidates, such as Sharron Angle in Nevada and Ken Buck in Colorado, did not do as well as expected. But that was remarkable only because the night was otherwise such a triumph for Republicans. Almost all close races in the House broke their way. Centrist “blue-dog” Democrats, many of them in Republican-leaning districts, were obliterated. Even stalwarts such as Ike Skelton, a congressman of 34 years and chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, and John Spratt, a 28-year veteran who runs the House Budget Committee, were booted out of office. Republicans returned to areas they had been evicted from two years ago, such as New England, while Democrats lost many of their toe-holds in the Great Plains, the Rockies and the South. The area around the Great Lakes, as predicted, was a particularly barren wasteland for Democrats. The Republicans picked up dozens of House seats in the region, plus Senate seats in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Illinois, not to mention governorships in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Wisconsin. The Republicans also triumphed in hard fought governors races in Texas and, it seems, in Florida. The only prominent governorship the Democrats have definitely picked up is in California, where Meg Whitman, a former software executive who spent some $140m of her own money and $20m of others’ on her campaign, nonetheless succumbed to Jerry Brown, who held the same job 28 years ago. Meanwhile, Republicans seem to have won over about ten state legislatures. A few races remain so close they are bound to be the subject of recounts and legal disputes for months to come. Florida, as it so often does, produced a squeaker, in which Rick Scott, the Republican candidate for governor, leads Alex Sink, his Democratic rival, by about 1% of the 5m-odd votes cast. There may be an automatic recount in Colorado, where Mr Buck leads Democrat Michael Bennet by a few thousand votes. And in Alaska, Lisa Murkowski’s potential victory as a write-in candidate will not be confirmed for several weeks, as electoral officials pore over each hand-written vote in her favour. None of that, however, detracts from the Republicans’ resounding victory. Their leaders, including John Boehner, the party’s presumptive choice as speaker of the House, and Sarah Palin, the most prominent standard-bearer for the tea-party movement, have called on Mr Obama to heed the voice of the electorate, rein in his big spending ways and co-operate with Republican efforts to deflate the federal government. Mr Obama will give a press conference later today, in which he will doubtless lay out his initial response to the Democrats’ drubbing. But it seems unlikely that he will accede to the Republicans’ demands to reverse course on his most cherished causes, such as health-care reform. He must now decide whether to curtail his ambitions dramatically, and pursue some sort of accommodation with the new Congress, or stick to his guns, even if that appears to ignore the voters’ will and leads to legislative gridlock. Republicans, too, face some unpalatable choices. It is not clear that the election results represent an endorsement of their policies so much as a protest at the economy and a repudiation of Mr Obama’s performance so far as president. The last time the party swept to a majority in the House, in 1994, it initiated and lost a duel with the White House, paving the way for Bill Clinton’s re-election two years later. Yet many of the new members seem determined to fight tooth and nail for dramatic cuts to the budget in particular. They are a remarkably conservative lot in other respects too: keen to abolish whole government departments in many cases, determined to crack down on illegal immigration, sceptical about global warming and opposed to abortion, among other controversial stances. If they push these views too aggressively, they may quickly alienate the independent voters who have just handed them such a resounding victory. Mr Boehner, a level-headed sort, will probably try to curb the more radical members of his caucus. But he has not always been able to maintain party discipline among his current, less fire-breathing ranks. All Republican congressmen will be wary of showing too many signs of moderation for fear of prompting primary challenges at the next election. It will not help, of course, that Republican grandees who see the election results as a sign of Mr Obama’s weakness in the presidential election of 2012, will soon start jockeying for the party’s nomination, with all the grandstanding that entails. The speaker-in-waiting, who wept with emotion at his party’s resuscitation last night, may soon find himself overcome by the difficulty of marshalling his new troops.


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