By midnight ET Republicans already had 52 Senate seats confirmed. Results were still outstanding in Alaska and Louisiana – the latter of which will hold a run-off election in December after neither candidate reached 50% of the vote. Two more Republican victories would leave the party with as much as an eight-seat advantage over Democrats.
Despite some initial Democratic optimism after they held on to New Hampshire and temporarily appeared to be ahead in North Carolina, the party lost almost all its key target Senate seats. Republicans captured Senate seats in West Virginia, Arkansas, South Dakota, Montana, Colorado and Iowa, and fended off Democrats in Kentucky, Georgia and Kansas, giving the party the 51 seats needed for a majority in Congress’ upper chamber.
The Democrats’ loss of the Senate was confirmed shortly before 11.30pm ET when the Associated Press called the North Carolina race in favour of Republican Thom Tillis.
Republicans also held off a challenge from independent candidate Greg Orman in Kansas and managed to prevent a runoff for a Senate seat in Georgia by comfortably defeating Democrat Michelle Nunn.
The presumptive new Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, pledged to work with Obama in the last two years of the president’s term after McConnell’s own decisive reelection victory in Kentucky began a steady rout for Democrats across the country.
McConnell’s win over Democratic challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes – who controversially refused to say whether she had voted for Obama – was the first key race to be called, shortly after polls closed.
“We do have an obligation to work together on issues where we can agree,” he told supporters. “I don’t expect the president to wake up tomorrow morning and view the world any differently. He knows I won’t either.”
The White House has invited a number of leaders from both the House of Representatives and the Senate to a meeting on Friday that may prove to be a moment of reconciliation aimed at forging compromise on issues, such as tax reform and trade negotiations, where there is some common ground.
Obama had earlier conceded that this year’s midterm elections have proved tough for Democrats, who were defending many of their seats in traditionally Republican-leaning states.
“This is the worst possible group of states for Democrats since Dwight Eisenhower – there are a lot of states being contested that just tend to tilt Republican,” the president said in one of a series of last-minute radio interviews.
The misery for Democrats was evident in results around the country. In Kentucky, Grimes took the stage for her concession speech with a rueful look . “While tonight didn’t bring us the result that we had hoped for, this journey, the fight for you was worth it. I will continue to fight for the commonwealth of Kentucky each and everyday.” She did not mention McConnell by name or congratulate him from the stage.
In North Carolina, defeat for the incumbent Kay Hagan came as a heavy blow for the state’s Democratic party. The purple state now has no Democratic senator or governor for the first time in 30 years. With fewer than 50,000 votes separating the two candidates, turnout appears to have been key.
A clue to why North Carolinians swung in the end to the Republican challenger was given in exit polls, which showed 51% of voters saying they believed that Hagan was too close in her politics to President Obama – the message that Republican Thom Tillis had relentlessly pounded on the campaign trail.
It was a tough night too for Democrats in Colorado, where the incumbent senator Mark Udall was ousted in decisive fashion by the Republican challenger, Cory Gardner. Udall mounted a disastrous campaign that focused solely on female voters, rarely straying from two topics : contraception and abortion.
The Democrats’ only consolation prize came in New Hampshire, where the incumbent, Jeanne Shaheen, saw off a strong challenge from Republican Scott Brown.
Shaheen, the first American woman to be elected both a governor and US senator, painted Brown, who sat in the US Senate for Massachusetts from 2010 to 2012, as an opportunistic carpetbagger who was in hock to out-of-state billionaires.
“We have better days, because the Senate has turned Republican, the House is Republican,” Brown said. “I’m hopeful that the president will come back and try to place our country’s interests first and be a uniter, not a divider.”
The Republican victory came on the back of disciplined campaigns from a wide variety of candidates. The party learned from the mistakes of previous years and avoided extremist rhetoric that had alienated women voters and minorities.
The night produced some potential new senate stars: in Iowa, a victory by a former pig farmer, Joni Ernst, was key to the national swing in favour of the GOP.
Ernst won an unexpectedly wide margin – eight points, with 87% of districts reporting – after running a disciplined, well-funded campaign. She attracted independent voters despite Democratic attempts to depict her as a Sarah Palin-style radical conservative.
“We did it!” she exulted to cheering supporters just two hours after polls closed. “We are heading to Washington and we are going to make ‘em squeal,” she said, in a reference to the ad that made her famous.
Ernst, a national guard lieutenant colonel who served in Iraq, promised to control spending, cut red tape and project US power, telling jubilant supporters: “This is the greatest nation in the history of mankind.”
In the House of Representatives, Republicans extended their majority to near-historic levels. They defeated the last white Democrats in the South and penetrated Democratic strongholds nationwide. Republicans may yet surpass the number of seats they held during the administration of Democratic president Harry Truman’s more than 60 years ago.
Republicans chalked up strong results in governors’ races. Wisconsin governor Scott Walker saw off a strong challenge from the Democratic candidate Mary Burke, solidifying Walker’s White House ambitions. Democrats had hoped to defeat Walker, who controversially ended collective bargaining for most public workers in the state after he was elected in 2010, prompting a recall election that he survived.
In Florida, Democrat Charlie Crist narrowly failed to prise the keys of the governor’s mansion from the grip of the Republican Rick Scott after a bruising contest. But in Pennsylvania, Republican governor Tom Corbett was defeated by Democrat Tom Wolf.
Voters decided on a wide variety of ballot measures: notably among them, Oregon became the third US state to legalise recreational marijuana, with a decisive victory on a particularly liberal law.