Obama humbled by conservative wave

Republicans seize momentum in House of Representatives as voter disillusionment leaves Democrats facing a tough future

By David Usborne,Us Editor
Wednesday 03 November 2010 10:00

A conservative wave roared across the American political landscape last night, humbling President Barack Obama and instantly redrawing the landscape in Washington with a new place on the high perches of power for the flag-bearers of the ultra-conservative Tea Party movement.

As night gave away to dawn in America, a huge power-shift had materialised with the Republican Party set to seize control of the House of Representatives with a significant majority. Television networks projected that the Democrats had held on to control of the US Senate.

Thus utter humiliation was averted - but barely.

“Tonight there is a Tea Party tidal wave,” declared Rand Paul, the victor of the Senate race in Kentucky and among the most high profile winners backed by the insurgent conservative movement. “They tell me that the Senate is the most deliberative body...deliberate on this: the American people are unhappy with what’s going on in Washington.

In Florida, Marco Rubio, another Tea Party favourite defeated Governor Charlie Crist, once a moderate Republican, to win that state’s Senate contest.

But there were a few bright spots for the Democrats. Sharon Angle, adored heroine of the Tea Party trying to oust Harry Reid, the Senate Majority leader, in Nevada, failed rather spectacularly. Joe Manchin, Governor of West Virginia, defeated his Republican foe to win a Senate seat. Two high-profile defeated Senate candidates were Christine O’Donnell in Delaware and Linda McMahon, a former wrestling executive, in Connecticut.

Moreover, it was good night for the party of the president in California, where Jerry Brown prevailed over Meg Whitman, former CEO of eBay, to win the governorship and Barbara Boxer survived a challenge from Carly Fiorina, formerly of Hewlett Packard, for her Senate seat.

Even so, it is a chastened Mr Obama who will address the breadth of his electoral debacle at a White House press conference today. NBC News said that the new lower house will see Republicans occupying approximately 237 seats against only 198 seats for the Democrats. Results of races for governor trickling in from 37 different states also signalled a rightward shift. Disastrous for Mr Obama looking forward to the next presidential race in 2012 was the defeat of Ted Strickland in the Ohio gubernatorial race. Strickland was a vital ally in a vital swing state.

A period of political turmoil may now be ushered in, that will be felt not just in America and beyond its shores particularly if conservative newcomers force their views through on issues like American levels of debt and the status of the healthcare reform which they would like repealed. Even last night, Republicans served notice that annulling healthcare reforms will be a top goal.

American ‘exceptionalism’ will rush to the fore also, with figures like Marco Rubio selling the notion that the US has a special status by the grace of God. Some expect Mr Rubio to springboard quickly towards the higher echelons of the Republican party. Mr Paul is among those who has questioned if Mr Obama is an American.

Huge drama was unfolding in Alaska overnight with early returns showing that “write-ins” were doing better in the vote that either the official Republican candidate – Tea Party choice Joe Miller – and the underdog Democrat. Those numbers suggested at least that Lisa Murkowski, the incumbent Republican running as a write-in, might make history and actually prevail.

A divided government in Washington will threaten to neuter the “Obama revolution” that sparked so much anticipation globally upon his election two years ago. A chill could quickly settle both on elements of his domestic agenda and on America’s engagement on the world stage, jeopardising progress on topics as wide-ranging as arms control and climate change.

With the vastly expensive midterm campaign over, attention will quickly shift to 2012. While no one doubts that Mr Obama will present himself for a second term, he will go into that battle undermined by the punishment delivered by voters.

The picture for the Republicans is bright but with storms looming. More power means more responsibility and the risk that gridlock over the next two years will end up hurting them at the ballot box next time as much as the President. Leaders of the party must now calculate whether it will serve them better to launch an all-out assault on Mr Obama or soften their stance to demonstrate bipartisanship.

Meanwhile, the gale of speculation about who among their ranks will surface to challenge Mr Obama two years hence starts today. The success of Tea Party candidates brings a sort of horrified thrill at the prospect of Sarah Palin being the nominee. Her star may actually fade as figures like Paul wield their influence on Capitol Hill. One possible casualty of the new Tea Party caucus may be John Boehner, the putative new House Speaker. The Tea Party considers him too moderate.

After all the fierce campaign of recent weeks, much depended on the final day on the alleged “enthusiasm gap” between the parties and the suggestion that Democrats, demoralised by the frustrations of the past two years, would stay on the sidelines whereas Republicans, caffeinated, as it were, by the Tea Party, would show greater zeal.

It was a risk Mr Obama tried to address yesterday in a radio interview with American Idol host Ryan Seacrest. “The main thing I want everyone to remember is you can’t shape your future if you don’t participate,” the President said. “Young people all across this country, they’re the ones who are going to make the difference, not just now but in the future.”

The headwinds that Democrats faced yesterday were largely fanned by an economy that has failed to recover quickly enough to affect an unemployment rate stuck at almost 10 per cent. Exit polls showed voters blaming Wall Street bankers for the economic troubles.

Additionally, the Republicans seemed more successful than Democrats in putting out their core message that Mr Obama has presided over an administration that has somehow been profligate in its spending to reverse the recession and bail out the banks and the car industry. The allegation that federal government has grown too large and should be cut back is also made by the Tea Partiers.

Mr Obama also suffered at the polls because for all the political capital he spent on getting healthcare reform through, voters in the end seemed more aggrieved about it than grateful.

The White House was also unable to gain traction from what in any other time would look like a significant record of legislative success. With his presidential pen, Mr Obama has signed bills into law on areas from reforming Wall Street to boosting small businesses.

It is possible now that even the healthcare reform law could face a slow death. The Republicans could starve many of its main provisions by simply withholding the necessary funding.

Mr Obama has tried to ensure the midterm elections did not turn into a referendum on his performance. But the Republicans always intended otherwise. Nancy Pelosi whose job as House Speaker was at stake last night insisted that the Republican takeover might still be staved off.

Selected key victories

Marco Rubio (Republican) Cruised to victory in Florida beating both independent Charlie Crist and Democratic rival Kendrick Meek to the Senate.

Chris Coons (Democrat) The Senator's defeat of prominent Tea Party figure Christine O'Donnell was a moment to savour for Democrats, and cause for gnashing of teeth among Delaware moderate Republicans.

Rand Paul (Republican) The son of libertarian ideologue Ron Paul, Rand alienated the Republican establishment in Kentucky in the course of his campaign and made a string of gaffes, but was the first Tea Party-backed Senate victor.

John Lynch (Democrat) The Governor defeated Republican healthcare consultant John Stephen in New Hampshire to win a fourth consecutive term as governor.

Daniel Webster (Republican) Ousted Democrat Alan Grayson from the House of Representatives after earning notoriety for saying Republicans want sick people to "die quickly".

Campaign timeline

19 January 2010 In the first concrete evidence of the Democrats' vulnerability, Republican Scott Brown takes the late Democratic stalwart Edward Kennedy's old Senate seat in a Massachusetts special election.

24 March Petitioners succeed in forcing a vote on the legalisation of marijuana on to the ballot in California. Though polls suggested the measure would fail last night, campaigners remained hopeful of an upset victory in the referendum.

$4bn Estimate by the Centre of Responsive Politics of the total sum that will be spent on the 2010 campaign, almost twice as much as in 2006.

11 May Under surprising pressure from a right-wing challenger in Arizona, Senator John McCain puts out an ad stating his determination – previously unnoted – to "complete the danged fence" and keep immigrants out. He eventually holds on to the Republican nomination.

8 June In perhaps the most unlikely candidacy of the race, an unemployed former soldier with no political background – who did not campaign – wins the Democratic nomination for the Senate in South Carolina. The campaign of Alvin Greene, pictured left, eventually sinks without trace.

1946 The last midterm election in which such a pronounced swing from one party to another was seen, as pollsters expected in last night's vote.

28 August Glenn Beck's "Restoring Honour" rally draws at least 87,000 Tea Party supporters – the organisers claim 1.6 million – to Washington to hear the pundit's outspoken critique of Barack Obama.

14 September Moderate Republican Mike Castle loses the Republican primary in Delaware to Tea Party candidate Christine O'Donnell. Soon a tape surfaces of O'Donnell declaring herself to be a witch, a description she later disavows in a campaign advert.

10 October New York's Republican Senate candidate Carl Paladino tells a Hasidic Jewish audience that being gay is "not the example that we should be showing our children". Paladino, well behind Democrat Andrew Cuomo in the polls, has already been attacked for forwarding racist and pornographic emails to friends.

27 October In another sign of the President's fading appeal, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate for Rhode Island, Frank Caprio, tells Mr Obama to "shove it" after he refuses to endorse Caprio's candidacy.

30 per cent Amount by which Democrats have outspent Republicans by 26 October, according to a New York Times report.

30 October Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear. Led by comedic TV hosts Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, it was a response to Glenn Beck's "Restoring Honor Rally". Some 215,000 people listened to Stewart calling for an end to cable news channels' political influence.

1 November Mr Obama concludes a multi-state trip to rally support for beleaguered Democrats in key states, returning from a whistlestop tour of Connecticut, Illinois, Ohio and Pennsylvania to hold a children's Hallowe'en party at the White House.

8,000 The number of people who turned up to hear the President speak in Cleveland in his final speech of the campaign. He was heard by an exuberant 80,000 in the same city in 2008.

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