WASHINGTON (AP) – Resurgent Republicans captured a West Virginia Senate seat long in Democratic hands and bid for control of the Senate and a tighter grip on the House Tuesday in elections shaped by widespread voter discontent with President Barack Obama.
The party’s leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, dispatched Democratic challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes in Kentucky after a $78 million campaign of unrelieved negativity.
Rep. Shelley Moore Capito was the GOP winner 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, and took aim at Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor in Arkansas.
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. Two Republicans were not among them: Govs. Nikki Haley in South Carolina and John Kasich in Ohio, both re-elected with ease. Kasich was one of several potential presidential candidates on the ballot across several states.
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 off 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. The president’s disapproval level exceeded 50 percent
Obama was at the White House as voters remade Congress for the final two years of his term. A shift in control of the Senate would likely result in a strong GOP assault on deficits and additional pressure to accept sweeping changes to the health care law that stands as his signal domestic accomplishment.
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, Pryor faced a stern challenge in Arkansas, as did Kay Hagan 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.
The seat has been in Republican hands since 1938, but party leaders rushed reinforcements in after the incumbent got a primary scare from a tea party challenger and then Democrat Chad Taylor left the race.
In the House, all 435 seats were on the ballot, but the roster of competitive races was less than 10 percent of those. In all, 32 incumbents ran unopposed, 17 of them Republicans and 16 Democrats. Another 34 had opposition only from minor party candidates or independents, 14 Republicans and 20 Democrats.
Ten more seats were already safe for one party of the other, pitting two Republicans against one another or two Democrats.
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 spending was unprecedented for a non-presidential year.
According to the Federal Election Commission, more than 500 groups reported making independent expenditures through Monday. Most of the attention went to groups set up by the political parties, their allies or outside interests.
FEC figures showed the House Democratic campaign committee spent the most – $69 million in what it conceded in advance was an attempt to minimize its loss of seats.
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