POLITICS

Early returns point to a strong GOP showing, likely Senate takeover

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky. and his wife, former Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao, wave to a gathering of supporters at his victory celebration in Louisville, Ky., Tuesday, Nov. 4, 2014. (AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley)

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky. and his wife, former Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao, wave to a gathering of supporters at his victory celebration in Louisville, Ky., Tuesday, Nov. 4, 2014. (AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley)

Resurgent Republicans captured Democratic seats in Arkansas and West Virginia and bid for control of the U.S. Senate and a tighter grip on the House Tuesday in elections shaped by deep voter discontent with President Barack Obama.

The party's leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell, dispatched Democratic challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes in Kentucky after a $78 million campaign of unrelieved negativity. Voters are "hungry for new leadership. They want a reason to be hopeful," said the man in line to become majority leader of the Senate if his party captures control.

Obama was at the White House as voters remade Congress for the final two years of his term. With lawmakers set to convene next week for a postelection session, he invited the leadership to a meeting on Friday.

Two-term Sen. Mark Pryor of Arkansas was the first Democratic incumbent to fall, defeated by freshman Rep. Tom Cotton. Rep. Shelley Moore Capito was the GOP winner for a Senate seat in West Virginia, the first of her party to make that claim since 1956.

Republicans also reached out for relatively easy pickings among Senate seats held by Democrats in South Dakota and Montana.

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The Republicans needed to gain six seats in all to oust a Democratic Senate majority in place since 2006.

No matter which party emerged with control of the Senate, a new chapter in divided government was inevitable in a nation marked by profound unease over the future and dissatisfaction with its political leaders. Obama has two more years in the White House, and Republican control over the House seemed likely to increase.

There were 36 gubernatorial elections on the ballot, and several incumbents struggled against challengers. Tom Wolf captured the Pennsylvania statehouse for the democrats, defeated Republican Gov. Tom Corbett.

Former Rep. Asa Hutchinson, a Republicans, was elected governor of Arkansas more than a decade after playing a prominent role in President Bill Clinton's impeachment and trial.

Also winning a new term was Ohio Gov. John Kasich, one of several presidential candidates on the ballot across several states.

In a footnote to one of the year's biggest political surprises, college professor Dave Brat was elected to the House from Virginia, several months after he defeated Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a Republican primary.

After years of a sluggish economic recovery and foreign crises aplenty, the voters' mood was sour.

Nearly two thirds of those interviewed after casting ballots said the country was seriously on the wrong track. Only about 30 percent said it was generally going in the right direction.

More than four in ten voters disapprove of both Obama and Congress, according to preliminary results of interviews with voters leaving the polls in surveys conducted for the Associated Press and the television networks.

Still, a majority of those polled supported several positions associated with Democrats or Obama rather than Republicans — saying immigrants in the country illegally should be able to work, backing U.S. military involvement against Islamic State fighters, and agreeing that climate change is a serious problem.

A shift in control of the Senate would likely result in a strong GOP assault on deficits, additional pressure to accept sweeping changes to the health care law that stands as his signal domestic accomplishment and a bid to reduce federal regulations.

The large number of highly competitive races, combined with the likelihood of runoffs in Louisiana and Georgia, raised the possibility that neither party would be able to claim victory by the day after Election Day.

There were 36 Senate races on the ballot, although most of the attention went to fewer than a dozen. They drew hundreds of millions of dollars in attack ads in a campaign season estimated to cost more than $4 billion — just for the races for Congress.

Among incumbents, Kay Hagan faced a stiff challenge in North Carolina and Mark Begich in Alaska, all states that Obama lost in 2012.

The same applied in Louisiana, where Sen., Mary Landrieu and Rep. Bill Cassidy were in a three-way race, with a Dec. 6 runoff ahead if no candidate gained a majority.

Democrats Jeanne Shaheen in New Hampshire and Mark Udall in Colorado also had difficult races in states Obama won two years ago.

Sen. Tom Harkin's decision to step down in Iowa gave rise to a fierce battle between Democratic Rep. Bruce Braley and Republican Joni Ernst. Her campaign took off earlier in the year when she made a television advertisement saying she had learned how to castrate hogs as a girl growing up on a farm.

Georgia chose a replacement for retiring Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss in a three-way race that included Republican David Perdue and Democrat Michelle Nunn, whose father held the seat for a quarter century. State law set a runoff for Jan. 6, 2015, if no candidate gained a majority.

The year's most unlikely race belonged to Kansas, where Republican Sen. Pat Roberts faced a challenge from independent Greg Orman.

In the House, all 435 seats were on the ballot, but the roster of competitive races was less than 10 percent of those

Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, was on the ballot for a 13th term, and the Democratic leader, Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, for a 14th.

Not even Democrats claimed a chance to topple the Republican House majority. They spent the campaign's final days dispatching money to districts where incumbents suddenly found themselves in danger.

Republicans sought to downplay any expectation of large gains. A pickup of 13 would give them more seats in the House than at any time since 1946.

The elections' $4 billion price tag spending was unprecedented for a non-presidential year.

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