By Steve Holland
Voters in the United States took to the polls on Tuesday, casting ballots in midterm elections where Republicans are poised to make gains and possibly recapture control of the U.S. Senate in a race that could complicate President Barack Obama’s last two years in office.
Obama’s low job approval rating, partisan gridlock in Washington and a U.S. economy that is not growing broadly enough to help many in the middle class are the major issues before voters in elections for 36 senators, 36 governors and all 435 members of the House of Representatives.
Republicans are expected to pick up seats in the U.S. Senate, but polls show eight to 10 races are still toss-ups and it is unclear whether they can gain the six seats they need to control the 100-member chamber for the first time since the 2006 election.
The battle for control of the Senate also could extend beyond Tuesday night. Senate races with multiple candidates in Louisiana and Georgia, where the winner must get more than 50 percent of the vote, could be forced into runoffs in December and January, respectively.
In Atlanta, Clarke Weeks, a 66-year-old real estate broker, said he was fed up with partisan fighting in Washington. He said he voted for Democrat Michelle Nunn in the tight Senate race in part because of Republican David Perdue’s attacks on Obama.
“Perdue is going to Washington to fight with everybody,” said Weeks. “That’s the last thing we need. The whole purpose of the Constitution was to force people to work together and make compromises.”
CHALLENGE FOR OBAMA
Seizing the Senate would give Republicans, who are expected to build on their majority in the House, control of both chambers of Congress.
That would constitute the most dramatic political shift since Obama entered the White House in early 2009 and might force the president to make more concessions to his Republican opponents than he would prefer.
The White House tried to play down the prospect of sharp changes in strategy after the election.
Obama will work with Congress on areas like trade and infrastructure where there is common ground, a White House official said.
On other issues, like climate change and immigration reform, Obama is likely to continue to take actions on his own. By the end of the year, he is expected to announce executive action to defer deportations for some undocumented immigrants.
Jay Carney, Obama’s former spokesman, said he expects Obama to make an “all-out push” on his priorities regardless of the makeup of Congress.
“He’s very competitive, and he will see it as a challenge, regardless of whether it’s a split Congress or GOP-controlled Congress. He’s still going to push,” Carney said in an interview.
Democratic senators are battling for re-election in tough races in Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana and North Carolina, all states won by Republican Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential election. Democratic Senator Mark Udall also is in a tight race in the swing state of Colorado, and the fight to replace retiring Democratic Senator Tom Harkin in the swing state of Iowa is a toss-up.
Republicans are in tight races to retain their seats in Georgia, where Senator Saxby Chambliss is retiring, and Kansas, where independent Greg Orman is challenging Republican Senator Pat Roberts.
Republican Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who polls show has a slight edge over Democratic challenger Allison Lundergan Grimes, would replace Democrat Harry Reid as Senate majority leader if Republicans win the Senate and he hangs on for re-election.
“Obviously, we intend to be a responsible governing Republican majority, if the American people give us the chance to do that,” McConnell told ABC News on Monday.
Several governors’ races also appeared too close to call, including the Florida contest between incumbent Republican Governor Rick Scott and Democrat Charlie Crist.
In Miami Beach, Sheila Duffy-Lehrman, 52, who co-owns an advertising firm, said she voted for Scott. “He’s doing an incredible job for the taxpayers, the budget, for increasing jobs,” she said.
But she had “not a shred of confidence” that Republican majorities in Washington could resolve Washington gridlock.
Obama’s low public approval rating of around 40 percent made him a political liability in some states on the campaign trail, where his last campaign appearance was on Sunday in Philadelphia. He stayed in Washington on Monday and is not campaigning on Tuesday, instead meeting with the head of the International Monetary Fund and his top advisers on the Ebola response.
Obama will face pressure to make changes at the White House if his party loses the Senate. A Reuters/Ipsos poll showed 75 percent of respondents believe the administration needs to “rethink” how it approaches major issues facing the United States (bit.ly/1ph8sLs). Sixty-four percent said Obama should replace some of his senior staff after the election (bit.ly/1rTVVbb).
But a White House official doubted there would be a major shakeup, no matter what the outcome on Tuesday.
“We’re talking about votes in a bunch of states that didn’t vote for the president,” the official said.