The party of Barack Obama had everything going for it: unemployment down to 2008 levels, GDP growing at 3.5 percent, the stock market doubled in value, and more Americans with health insurance than ever before.
Jobs and the economy are the issues US voters care about most, with health care in second place, so mission accomplished. Why, then, on Tuesday, did they vote the Democrats out of power and vote into power the party that had shut down large parts of the federal government only a year before?
Although true, it's a little too simplistic to say that the president's party almost always loses seats during his second term. It's also too simplistic to say that only one-third of the Senate was up for election and that those seats were in conservative states. Many of those same seats had been won by Democrats in 2008, when Obama came to power. Then, as now, the Democrats' fate was tied to the charisma of Obama — a rising star six years ago, a falling star today.
The president's perceived indecision on matters of foreign affairs, his inability to resolve various deadlocks in Congress, and the presence of a few minor scandals have greatly tarnished his image. Depending on which part of the country one is in, the president is viewed as either lackluster or unpopular.
Usually a president's endorsement of a congressional candidate gets donors interested, and personal appearances during the campaign get more voters to come out and hear what the candidate has to say. Not this time. Most of the Democratic candidates did not want to be seen with Obama. In some cases, Vice-President Joe Biden stepped in, as did Hillary Clinton, but overall the Democratic candidates seemed to be fighting one-on-one battles, not a larger ideological war.
The Republican candidates, however, did both. They had an ideological war cut out for them. Anyone who watches the sensationalist news reporting in America could not be blamed for thinking that Vladimir Putin, Islamic State jihadists and the Ebola virus were all coming to get them any minute now and that Barack Obama might not protect them.
The general disinterest of Democrats — who include more women, young people and ethnic minorities — resulted in many of them staying home, while Republicans — often men, older voters and white people — tended to be eager to vote.
Now in control of both houses of Congress, with a 5-4 Republican-leaning majority in the Supreme Court and Republicans as governors of 33 to 35 of the 50 states, the Republicans have Obama surrounded. Just the same, their win on Tuesday is not a landslide. When all the votes have been counted, they'll have between 52 and 55 of the 100 seats in the Senate. They're expected to have about 56 percent of the 435 seats in the House of Representatives.
It almost didn't happen this way. Until about two weeks before the election, a number of Democratic Senate candidates were neck-and-neck with their Republican rivals. Then the Democratic Party ran low on money and withdrew it from key races. At the same time, Republicans and groups that supported them spent a lot of last-minute money and stepped up their TV advertising and robocalls.
In total, all candidates and parties spent about $2.7 billion on this election, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics (CRP). Just as significantly, outside groups also spent nearly $900 million trying to influence the outcome; most of this money went to support Republican candidates. Legal loopholes prevent the disclosure of many of the sources of these donations. Those The New York Times was able to trace often came from individuals living outside the candidates' home states.