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Column: A Republican Rout — Now What?

Republican Thom Tillis, left, and wife Susan react after the results of the U.S. midterm elections early morning in Charlotte, North Carolina, Nov. 5, 2014.

Tuesday’s midterm elections turned into a rout for Republicans and a nightmare for Democrats, especially President Barack Obama.

Republicans got the wave they were hoping for and nearly ran the table on the close Senate races. And they did even better than expected in the 36 races for state governor around the country.

Make no mistake—what happened on Tuesday was the equivalent of a political earthquake and the aftershocks will be felt in Washington for the foreseeable future.

Watch related video report by VOA's Jim Malone

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​The Republican path to a Senate majority ran through several Democratic seats in so-called Red States where Republicans have been strong in recent elections, including the 2012 presidential race. Republicans easily won key Senate races in Arkansas, West Virginia, Montana and South Dakota.

They also won Democratic Senate seats in key swing states like Colorado, Iowa and North Carolina – states that were essential building blocks for Obama’s 2012 re-election and which will play a key role in the 2016 presidential race as well.

In short, Republicans easily won where they should have (Republican-leaning states) and did better than expected in so-called battleground states where presidential elections are won and lost. That sets them up for potential good news in 2016.

Republicans also won governor’s races in strongly Democratic states like Maryland, Massachusetts and even the president’s home state of Illinois. They also prevailed in a close race in Florida and easily secured re-election for Republican Governor Scott Walker in Wisconsin.

Walker may now be tempted to join the growing list of potential GOP presidential contenders for 2016.

Referendum on Obama

The number one factor helping Republicans this year was President Obama’s poor public approval ratings, averaging just over 40 percent in recent national polls.

Exit polls of voters who cast ballots on Tuesday confirmed that many Republicans and independent voters saw the election as a referendum on the president, something Democrats had long dreaded.

Voter concerns about the economy, health care and foreign policy also factored into the results on Tuesday.

About two-thirds of the country believes the country is headed in the wrong direction, despite the fact that the jobless rate is declining and the economy is growing at a decent clip.

Foreign policy, a strength for the president in his re-election two years ago, was more of a negative factor this year.

Concern about the threat posed by the Islamic State in the Middle East and the administration’s handling of Ebola contributed to a public perception that the White House was not in control of possible threats to the U.S. That in turn led to voter anxiety and doubt, factors that always hurt incumbents.

The irony is that public views of Congress in general and Republicans in particular are even worse than those of the president.

But in a midterm election, the historical trend is for voters to take out their frustrations and anxieties on the incumbent in the White House, and that is exactly what happened this year.

More uncertainty ahead

Now that Obama has suffered the strongest political rebuke of his presidency, what are his options?

Republican control of the Senate, combined with an enhanced majority in the House of Representatives, gives them more power to block the president’s legislative agenda.

The president must now assess whether it’s time to reach out to Republicans on some issues, say tax reform and trade, or hunker down, particularly when it comes to the budget and immigration reform.

Republicans have some decisions to make as well.

Exit polls showed voters are frustrated with partisan gridlock in Washington. They want Congress and the president to work together to solve the nation’s problems, not fighting endless partisan battles over health care, taxes and climate change.

The incoming Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, must consider when to simply block the president’s agenda and when the time might be right to work with the White House and Democrats.

In his victory speech McConnell said neither he nor the president will see the world differently in the wake of Tuesday’s results. But he also added, “We do have an obligation to work together on issues where we can agree.”

Republican strategist Ford O’Connell told VOA’s Senate Correspondent Michael Bowman the results show that “two-thirds of America thought the country was going in the wrong direction. They wanted a change in direction and now it is up to Republicans to bring that change.”

The recent track record in Congress suggests the likelihood of more partisan gridlock in the final two years of the Obama presidency.

But Senator McConnell is also acutely aware that Republicans will be held accountable for what they do over the next two years and that could be a key factor leading up to the presidential election in 2016.

Republicans are desperate to win the White House back two years from now. They’ve seen that no matter how well you do in congressional races, the presidency remains the real seat of power and that lasting political change stems from winning the White House and using that as a national mandate for action.

But McConnell also faces challenges from Tea Party supporters within his own Republican caucus, some of whom are likely presidential contenders in 2016.

They include Texas Senator Ted Cruz, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul and Florida Senator Marco Rubio.

It was only a year ago that a government shutdown pushed by Tea Party supporters in Congress badly damaged the Republican brand. How McConnell balances both blocking the Obama agenda and keeping some of the more conservative Republican senators in line over the next two years will be a major political challenge.

Shaping Obama legacy

There is little doubt that Tuesday’s results mean that the president faces a difficult final two years in office.

Like most presidents near the end of their time in office, he will be concerned with shaping his political legacy. That means protecting his signature health care law from renewed Republican attack in both the House and Senate.

A Supreme Court vacancy, should one occur, could also spark a major battle over Senate confirmation.

The midterm setbacks for Democrats will no doubt figure in any assessment of President Obama’s political legacy, said author Aaron David Miller of the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars in Washington.

“Barack Obama is not the catastrophic incompetent that his detractors want to depict him as,” Miller said. “But nor is he the redeemer or the savior that his adherents wanted. There is a sense of emptiness and disappointment between what was promised and what was delivered.”

President Obama’s first test may come on immigration reform.

Will he go ahead with unilateral action likely to antagonize Republicans? Or might some mainstream Republicans be willing to compromise on modest measures that could enhance their party’s ability to woo Hispanic voters two years from now in the presidential race?

The election results also appear to have had an impact even on Democrats who were able to prevail.

New Hampshire Senator Jeanne Shaheen narrowly beat back a strong challenge from Republican Scott Brown and is taking a decidedly centrist view of the path forward.

“I will work with anyone in the Senate—Democrat, Republican, Independent—to get things done,” she said.

Finally there is the complicated question of the relationship between the president and the woman who Democrats overwhelmingly want to succeed him—former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Given the results on Tuesday and the clear public unhappiness expressed with President Obama, Clinton will have to find ways to separate herself from the Obama presidency if she runs.

The president, for his part, may have to accept some of that pushback while at the same time figuring out what he can do over the next two years to pave the way for a Democrat to succeed him in the White House.

The politics of the 2014 midterms are inextricably linked to the presidential contest in 2016.

In the wake of Tuesday’s results, Republicans understandably feel a surge of momentum in taking the Senate and showing Democrats they can compete in swing states like Iowa, Colorado and North Carolina.

That should set them up to be very competitive for the White House two years from now, provided they nominate the right candidate.

Presidential race looms

The Republican search for a standard bearer begins now.

Many Democrats already believe they already have the right candidate—Hillary Clinton—assuming she runs. But Democrats also remember that Clinton was a heavy favorite for the party nomination in 2008 and lost to Obama, who at the time was a long shot challenger.

For 2016, Democrats may be thinking it’s time to go back to the future. For Republicans, the future looks brighter—but still uncertain.

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    Jim Malone

    Jim Malone has served as VOA’s National correspondent covering U.S. elections and politics since 1995. Prior to that he was a VOA congressional correspondent and served as VOA’s East Africa Correspondent from 1986 to 1990. Jim began his VOA career with the English to Africa Service in 1983.