US midterm elections: Dispirited Democrats watch as Republicans edge closer to seizing the Senate and further isolating the White House

It was clear voters would awake this morning to a country coloured more conservative and a White House rendered more isolated

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The Independent US

Dispirited Democrats watched as their Republican foes made slow but steady advances across the American electoral map in the midterm elections last night, edging ever closer to their cherished goal of picking up the six seats the party needed to seize control of the United States Senate.

Many of the most watched races for roughly one third of the US Senate, all 435 seats in the House of Representatives and three dozen governorships remained agonizingly close. Yet it was clear voters would awake this morning to a country coloured more conservative and a White House rendered more isolated. By late evening, the Republicans already had four of the magic number of six.

For all the hoopla, balloons and cheering at victory parties held by Republicans, there was a lingering sense of an electorate in a sour mood, uneasy with the country’s direction, disenchanted with Democrats and President Barack Obama for sure, but disgusted also with Washington as a whole.

On a night of victory for some and tears for others, one pivotal moment came early when Senator Mitch McConnell was projected to retain his US Senate seat in Kentucky after a tight race against Alison Lundergan Grimes. Kentucky had been considered one of the most important races of the night.

Victory was projected also for Tom Cotton, the 37-year-old Republican congressman from Arkansas, who will displace Mark Pryor, as the state’s junior US Senator. Mr Pryor’s loss will be a big disappointment for Bill Clinton, who was governor of that state before he became president.

In one kink in the scramble for power in the Senate, neither of the main party candidates in Louisiana had won the 50 per cent necessary in that state to win and a run-off between Mary Landrieu, the Democrat incumbent, and Bill Cassidy, the Republican, was called for early December.  The struggle in Louisiana will be largely moot, though, if, as seemed likely, the Republicans took the magic six seats elsewhere. 

On a brighter note for Democrats, Senator Jeanne Shaheen appeared to have defeated Scott Brown, her Republican rival, who had trespassed onto her territory in New Hampshire after serving as a junior senator in Massachusetts. A loss by Ms Shaheen would have been considered disastrous for Democrats, not least because the pivotal part New Hampshire will play in the 2016 presidential derby.

Counting meanwhile ground on in other critical Senate races, notably North Carolina, New Hampshire and Georgia. Historically, the governing party is punished in the midterms.  Nonetheless, the poor showing by Democrats will widely be seen as humiliation for President Barack Obama, who must now show he can move forward even with both chambers of the Congress in Republican hands.

Even as ballots were being counted across the country, officials announced that Mr Obama would invite leaders both sides of Congress to the White House on Friday to try to plot a way forward.  Mr McConnell, if the Senate indeed becomes Republican, will make clear his intent to challenge the Obama agenda. Targets will include the president’s signature healthcare reform law.

Tension was rising fast in Florida, where early returns in the gubernatorial contest between Republican incumbent Rick Scott and his challenger, Republican-turned-Democrat Charlie Crist, appeared excruciatingly close with Mr Scott scraping a tiny advantage.

If the Republican Party, also known as the GOP, indeed seizes the Senate, Mr McConnell will become the Majority Leader.  He would displace Senator Harry Reid, who has been a key ally to President Barack Obama in Washington.  Mr McConnell will now become his most potent nemesis. He will at the same time, however, have only two years to prove the Republicans can govern as sell as obstruct.

Democrats may have been at a natural disadvantage because several of their incumbents up for re-election were in Republican-leaning states and were elected in 2008 on the first Obama wave.  Quick to fall were Democrat incumbents in South Dakota and West Virginia.

However, races in roughly ten states were gauged too close to call last night and there was the added possibility of perhaps two Republican seats flipping Democrat or independent. They are in Georgia and also in Kansas, where independent Greg Orman is trying to unseat Senator Pat Roberts. Early tallies from that race also suggested it remained extraordinarily close.

Beyond Florida, which will be at the heart of the 2016 presidential race, there were other closely watched contests for  governor, for example in Wisconsin where Scott Walker, a possibly presidential contender, faced possible extinction in the face of a strong Democrat challenger Mary Burke.

The election, however it finally shakes out, is sure to be cast as a referendum on President Obama who has seen his approval ratings shrink to nearly 40 per cent.  No other president with the exception of George W, Bush has gone into a midterm cycle with such a poor score-card with the country’s voters.

Ominously, exit polls tonight show 34 per cent of the electorate casting the votes as an expression of their opposition to his policies in the White House.

In a Connecticut radio interview vtoday, Mr Obama seemed to accept the night ahead looked bad for his party but tried to blame it on the fact of so many vulnerable Democrat senators being up for re-election at once.  “This is probably the worst possible group of states for Democrats since Dwight Eisenhower,” he contended.  “There are a lot of states that are being contested where they just tend to tilt Republican.”

In another interview on Tuesday, Vice President Joe Biden created panic in the headquarters of Mr Orman in Kansas saying he expected him to vote with the Democrats should he come to Washington.  Mr Orman has striven to avoid any show of loyalty to either party but the Republicans seized on Mr Biden’s remarks even as Kansans were going to the polls to cast Mr Orman as an Obama lackey.

A bad night for the Democrats will switch the spotlight instantly to Mr Obama and how he responds.  There will be calls for a shake-up of his inner circle.  A more pugnacious response, however, would be for the president to honour his promise to take executive action on immigration, action that he put off while the midterm elections were being fought.