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By Dan Hirschhorn, TIME
A midterm election campaign historic for its massive cost and the minutiae on which it often focused wound to a close Tuesday with Republicans giddy they could win the Senate for the first time in almost a decade—which would give President Barack Obama political headaches for his final two years in office.
Momentum had slowly but surely shifted in Republicans’ favor in the final 48 hours before polls opened, with GOP candidates opening up small but measurable leads in polls of the most important Senate races. Republicans need to pick up a net of six Senate seats to win the majority. While many races remained within the margin of error, and with room for surprises across the political map, it was clear that Republicans tasted victory and that Democrats were bracing themselves for defeat.
“Victory is in the air,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky Republican poised to become Majority Leader if his party wins the Senate, told supporters Monday in Lexington. “We’re going to bring it home tomorrow night,” he said, according to the Lexington Herald-Leader. Polls in recent days had shown McConnell, facing one of the most difficult reelection fights of his decades-long Senate career, opening up a healthy lead against Democratic challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes. McConnell aides were confident Monday night of his own reelection, if more cautious about the party’s prospects of winning the Senate. He was set to campaign throughout the state Monday with fellow Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul.
“Tomorrow we’re going to send a message,” Paul, a likely 2016 presidential candidate, said Monday during a rally with McConnell in Louisville. “We’re going to send a message to President Obama. This will be a repudiation of President Obama’s policies.”
President Obama, whose middling approval ratings are dragging down Democratic candidates across the country and who has exclusively campaigned for candidates in safe Democratic territory, was set to stay out of sight Tuesday. He had meetings scheduled with Vice President Joe Biden, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and officials handling the Administration’s Ebola response, but he wasn’t expected to campaign or appear in public. Obama famously declared the 2010 election a “shellacking” the day after Republicans won the House, and it remained to be seen how he would respond if his party loses the Senate on Tuesday.
Biden, who said in an interview with CNN that “I don’t agree with the oddsmakers” and predicted Democrats would keep the Senate, also signaled the Administration would be ready to work with a fully Republican-controlled Congress. The GOP is widely expected to expand its already-sizable majority in the House, and Democratic operatives running the national House campaign effort were working Tuesday to frame the eventual Republican pickups as fewer than GOP operatives had originally forecast—and mostly in line with historical trends that see the President’s party lose seats in midterm elections.
“Quite frankly, going into 2016, the Republicans have to make a decision whether they’re in control or not in control,” Biden said in the interview, which aired Monday. “Are they going to begin to allow things to happen? Or are they going to continue to be obstructionists? And I think they’re going to choose to get things done.
“Look, we’re—we’re ready to compromise,” he added.
Democrats, who in 2012 significantly outmatched Republicans’ ability to use technology to identify and turn out voters, held out hope that a superior ground game would prove election forecasters wrong; about 17 million Americans voted before Election Day, an electorate the party hoped was breaking its way and not registering in the polls. And enough races remained in flux early Tuesday that no one was calling the election over yet. In Georgia and Louisiana, in particular, close Senate races could end with neither candidates garnering the majority support needed to avoid run-offs—which could leave control of the Senate up in the air for weeks.
But after Republicans twice blew good shots at winning the Senate in 2010 and 2012, by nominating staunchly conservative candidates who proved to be flawed party messengers for the general election, more indicators than not pointed to a GOP takeover. Republicans were even forecasting big gains in down-ballot state races, with the Republican State Leadership Committee, which works to elect Republicans in state legislatures, saying the party was “positioned for a historic night” that would see it gain supermajorities in some states.
The only clear bright spot for Democrats could be found in gubernatorial races, where some Republicans elected during the GOP wave of 2010 looked poised to go down in defeat.
“This election needs to be viewed in the context of what usually happens to the party of the president in second term, midterm elections—when, no matter who the president is, their party generally loses and loses badly,” said Daniel Paul Franklin, a political science professor at Georgia State University. “If the Democrats exceed expectations and hold the Senate, that means the demographics of the United States will not support the Republican Party as it is currently constituted.”
Even until the end, an election that was so often defined by controversies, faux outrage and opposition research-driven stories stayed small. The Iowa Senate race, where Republican Joni Ernst has opened a lead against Democrat Bruce Braley, was shaken in its final hours by the revelation that outgoing Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin seemed to compare Ernst to pop-star Taylor Swift.
“I don’t care if she’s as good looking as Taylor Swift or as nice as Mr. Rogers, but if she votes like Michele Bachmann, she’s wrong for the state of Iowa,” Harkin said in a video published by BuzzFeed on Sunday. After an uproar, Harkin was forced to apologized Monday.
“I shouldn’t have said those things, I know that,” he said. “I regret anytime someone feels offended by what I have said.”
Ernst, for her part, said on Fox News that she was “very offended,” but that she would “shake it off.”
— With reporting from Zeke J Miller, Jay Newton-Small and Maya Rhodan
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