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GOP gains House seats; tea party favorites thrive
WASHINGTON (AP) -- Republicans picked up Senate seats in Indiana and Arkansas and toppled House incumbents in three states in midterm elections Tuesday night, early fruits of a drive to break the Democrats' grip on power in Congress.
Tea party favorites Rand Paul in Kentucky and Marco Rubio in Florida coasted to easy Senate victories, overcoming months of withering Democratic attacks on their conservative views, but Christine O'Donnell was trounced in Delaware.
All 435 seats in the House were on the ballot, plus 37 in the Senate in an election shadowed by recession and stirred by a rebellion of tea party conservatives.
An additional 37 governors' races gave Republicans ample opportunity for further gains halfway through President Barack Obama's term.
House Republicans brimmed with confidence that they would pick up the 40 seats needed to take control of the House and install Rep. John Boehner as the new speaker. "This is going to be a big day," he said as he voted near his home in West Chester, Ohio. For those who think the government is spending too much and bailing out too many, he said, "This is their opportunity to be heard."
Democrats conceded nothing. "Let's go out there and continue to fight," Speaker Nancy Pelosi exhorted supporters in remarks before television cameras while the polls were still open in much of the country.
But not long after she spoke, Democratic incumbents in both houses began falling.
The first to go was Sen. Blanche Lincoln in Arkansas, defeated by Rep. John Boozman in her bid for a third term.
In the House, Republicans sent Rep. Rick Boucher to defeat in Virginia; Suzanne Kosmas and Alan Grayson in Florida, too. Virginia Rep. Tom Perriello lost as well, despite a late-campaign appearance by Obama.
Interviews with voters revealed an extraordinarily sour electorate, stressed financially and poorly disposed toward the president, the political parties and the federal government.
About four in 10 voters said they were worse off financially than two years ago, according to preliminary exit poll results and pre-election surveys. More than one in three said their votes were an expression of opposition to Obama, but more than half expressed negative views about both political parties. Roughly 40 percent of voters considered themselves supporters of the conservative tea party movement. By contrast, about three in four expressed negative views about the federal government. Less than half said they wanted the government to do more to solve problems.
The preliminary findings were based on Election Day and pre-election interviews with more than 9,000 voters.
Republicans picked up their first Senate seat of the night -- they needed 10 for a majority -- in Indiana, where former Sen. Dan Coats easily dispatched Rep. Brad Ellsworth to win back the seat he voluntarily gave up a dozen years ago.
In next-door Ohio, former Bush administration official Rob Portman held a Senate seat for the Republicans with ease.
In Kentucky, where Paul was making his first run for political office, he prevailed over Democrat Jack Conway.
Rubio, also running with tea party support, was gaining about 50 percent of the vote in a three-way race in Florida, months after he forced Gov. Charlie Crist to leave the Republican Party and run as an independent.
Another tea party-backed candidate lost overwhelmingly, suggesting the energy and enthusiasm provided by the conservative activists came with a price.
Christine O'Donnell, who went from a virtual unknown to primary winner to fodder for late-night comedians in the span of a few months, lost to Democrat Chris Coons in Delaware. It was a seat long in Democratic hands that Republicans had nevertheless virtually counted as their own this year, but that was before O'Donnell defeated veteran Rep. Mike Castle in a September primary.
In New Hampshire, Republican Kelly Ayotte won a Senate seat, defeating Democratic Rep. Paul Hodes.
In a year of turmoil, there were incumbent senators in both parties who won with ease.
Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont was re-elected to his seventh term and Barbara Mikulski her fifth.
Republican Sen. Jim DeMint, who won a second term in South Carolina, has been working to establish a nationwide standing among conservatives. He was instrumental in supporting tea party challengers in several primaries this spring and summer at a time the GOP establishment was backing other candidates.
In Alabama, Sen. Richard Shelby was re-elected easily.
Republicans raced to leads for House seats in Democratic hands in Indiana, Ohio, Florida, North Carolina and elsewhere.
In Virginia, Rep. Tom Perriello trailed his Republican rival despite a late-campaign appearance by Obama.
Despite the national trend, the first House seat to change hands was in Delaware -- and it went to the Democrats. There, John Carney easily won the seat that was Castle's for nearly two decades.
"This is going to be a big day," said House Minority Leader John Boehner, who would be speaker in a new Republican majority, as he voted near his home in West Chester, Ohio. For those who think the government is spending too much and bailing out too many, he said, "This is their opportunity to be heard."
The president gave a series of radio interviews pleading with Democratic supporters not to sit on the sidelines. "I know things are still tough out there, but we finally have job growth again," he said in one. "It is all at risk if people don't turn out and vote today."
While Obama's name was not on the ballot, his record and policies were. After nearly two years in power, he and congressional Democrats were saddled politically with ownership of an economy that was barely growing, 9.6 percent unemployment, a high rate of home foreclosures and personal bankruptcies, the residue of the worst recession since the 1930s.
"I will honestly say that I voted for him two years ago," said Sally McCabe, 56, of Plymouth, Minn., stopping to cast her ballot on her way to work. "And I want my vote back."
In Cleveland, Tim Crews, 42, said he measures Obama's performance by the number of paying miles he drives in his delivery van. His miles have tripled to 9,000 a month. Crews said of the economy: "It's moving. I know, because I'm moving it." He voted accordingly.
Republicans needed to pick up 40 seats to regain a House majority they lost in 2006.
Less likely, a pickup of 10 would give them control of the Senate.
A Republican victory in either house would usher in an era of divided government, complicate Obama's ability to enact his proposals over the next two years and possibly force him to fight off attacks on health care legislation and other bills he has signed into law.
Republicans assailed Democrats as puppets of Obama and, in the House, of Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. as well.
They pledged to cut taxes and federal spending in hopes of revitalizing the economy and reining in deficits. They were purposely vague with details, particularly on spending cuts, and Democrats argued their true agenda was to privatize Social Security and Medicare while eviscerating other programs.
In the Senate, Democratic Sens. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas and Russell Feingold of Wisconsin were among the top GOP targets.
In a handful of states, tea party-backed Republicans who upset establishment candidates in the primaries faced their final tests. The roster included Paul in Kentucky, O'Donnell in Delaware, Rubio in Florida, Ken Buck in Colorado, Joe Miller in Alaska and Sharron Angle in Nevada, challenger to Majority Leader Harry Reid in a state with 14.4 percent unemployment.
Some of the biggest states elected governors, including California, where Democrat Edmund G. Brown Jr., collided with Meg Whitman in his attempted return to the office he left more than a quarter-century ago. In New York, Andrew Cuomo ran for the office his father held for a dozen years.
In one of the year's marquee races, Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland faced a strong challenge from former Rep. John Kasich in his bid for a new term in Ohio.
With so many contested races, and a Supreme Court ruling removing restrictions on political activity by corporations and unions, the price tag for the elections ran to the billions.
Much of the money paid for television advertisements that attacked candidates without letup, the sort of commercials that voters say they disdain but that polls find are effective.
Obama traveled to 14 states in the final month, some twice, in a bid to rekindle the enthusiasm of the young voters, liberals, blacks and independents whose ballots propelled him to the White House.
Not that Republicans didn't have problems of their own as the campaign began. Their candidate recruitment was aimed at filling spots on the ballot with well-known, experienced office holders.
The voters had other ideas, and made it clear quickly. In the first of a series of shock waves, tea party rebels dumped conservative three-term Sen. Bob Bennett at Utah's Republican convention in May.
By the time the primaries were finished, six incumbents had fallen in both parties and both houses.
Senate Republicans made their peace with the rebels, necessary if they were to harness their energy for the fall campaign. They worked to soften the edges of candidates who had advocated politically risky cuts in federal programs, questioned the wisdom of civil rights laws or doubted the separation of church and state.
AP writers Thomas J. Sheeran in Cleveland, Rasha Madkour in Miami, Wayne Parry in Bayville, N.J., Bruce Shipkowski in Trenton, N.J., Mike Glover in Des Moines, Iowa, Thomas J. Sheeran in Parma Heights, Ohio, Jeff Baenen in Minneapolis, Deepti Hajela in New York and Mark S. Smith in Washington contributed to this report.