It is, in the words of Barack Obama’s predecessor, a thumpin’.
In a verdict no less dramatic for having been predicted by every two-bit pundit on the planet, the Republicans rode a wave of disaffection with Obama and the anemic economy to seize control of the House of Representatives. It appears right now that they will fall short in the Senate.
The early results carried little surprise. Rand Paul was projected the Senate winner in Kentucky as soon as the polls closed at 7 eastern. Same for Republican Dan Coats in Indiana and Tea Party champion Marco Rubio in Florida. Blanche Lincoln is toast in Arkansas.
But the GOP drive to capture the Senate was derailed in West Virginia, where Joe Manchin, the popular Democratic governor who took a rifle to shoot the cap-and-trade bill, beat businessman John Raese in the Senate race. You could practically hear Democrats exhaling across the country.
It’s no secret that the Republicans have been riding a tide of disaffection with President Obama and the anemic economy. They have gained enormous traction with a largely negative message, vowing to stop Obama’s agenda and attempt to roll it back, and with an insurgency fueled by Tea Party anger and abetted by disaffected Democrats.
“I think the pundits are wrong,” Obama said in Philadelphia on Sunday. Well, sometimes they are wrong, but that’s the sort of thing that politicians say when all the evidence is stacked against them (which may explain the weirdness of the president doing a Ryan Seacrest interview today). Nancy Pelosi told reporters late this afternoon that “we’re on pace to maintain the majority in the House of Representatives.” Uh, that now appears to be inoperative.
Initial exit polls, conducted for the networks and the AP, basically confirm what we already knew. Eighty-six percent say they’re worried about the direction of the economy in the next year, and four in 10 say they’re worse off financially than two years ago (recalling the old Reagan debate line).
About four in 10 support the Tea Party movement—and, guess what, they voted overwhelmingly for the GOP. Twenty-six percent of those surveyed say they’re angry, 47 percent merely dissatisfied.
Only a quarter blames Obama for the ailing economy—but about half thinks his policies are hurting the country. Fifty-six percent say the government is doing too much.
What more, really, do you need to know?
One early exception to the trend: Chris Coons. You know, the Delaware guy who ran against Christine O’Donnell, the most covered candidate of the season, despite the fact that she had no chance to win. She must have cast a spell on the media. O’Donnell lost by 17 points, yet asked Coons to support her positions during a concession call.
When the speaker’s gavel passes from Nancy Pelosi to John Boehner, along with committee chairmanships and control of the floor, it will fundamentally alter the second half of Obama’s first term. The result will be either absolute gridlock or a grudging cooperation, if the two sides choose to make a few Clintonian deals during the positioning for 2012.
On the plus side, the president will have a foil, someone to blame for lack of progress, now that his party won’t control all the levers of Washington power. But make no mistake: the activist phase of Obama’s presidency is over and he will be fighting a rear-guard action to preserve his health care plan and other priorities.
Whatever the spin, this is shaping up as a historic smackdown of the nation’s first African-American president, a stunning decline for the man who embodied hope, change and the gauzy vision of a post-racial, post-partisan future. Even White House officials stopped pretending months ago that this was anything other than a referendum, much as they tried to make it about the party from which they inherited an economic mess. Obama may signal his direction in a news conference Wednesday.
The Republican victory ended a brief, four-year House reign for the Democrats, who seemed poised for a long run after ousting the GOP, which had controlled both chambers for a dozen years.
We could be in for a volatile period where the House swings back and forth between the parties as voters vent their frustrations on whoever is in charge. Or the Republicans could learn from their past mistakes and, despite their no-compromise rhetoric, avoid the temptation to overreach.
Obama was always going to face a difficult midterm because he brought with him a bunch of moderate and conservative Democrats in what would normally be GOP districts. With the smaller turnout of a non-presidential year, some of those new lawmakers were certain to get tossed out. But high unemployment and Obama’s own stumbles could magnify what might have been acceptable losses.
Beyond the bragging rights, the final numbers could be crucial. A smaller GOP wave could allow the president to attempt to put together a working coalition with pragmatic Republicans on a few key issues. A Republican blowout would force the White House into an almost entirely defensive posture, at least on domestic matters.
But a monster GOP victory would also boost pressure on Boehner’s party to make good on some of its promises rather than just posturing and heaping blame on Obama. However it shakes out, the challenge for the media is to hold both sides accountable rather than just cover the mudball fight.
Howard Kurtz is The Daily Beast's Washington bureau chief. He also hosts CNN's weekly media program "Reliable Sources," Sundays at 11 am ET. The longtime media reporter and columnist for The Washington Post, Kurtz is the author of five books.