Washington Republicans marched confidently to the brink of House control Tuesday night in midterm elections shadowed by recession, promising a conservative majority certain to challenge President Barack Obama at virtually every turn. The GOP gained Senate seats, as well, but a takeover there appeared out of reach.
"I'll never let you down," House Republican leader John Boehner, the likely next speaker, told tea party supporters in his home state of Ohio.
Among the House Democrats who tasted defeat was Rep. Tom Perriello, a first-termer for whom Obama campaigned just before the election.
In Senate races, 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 lost badly in Delaware, for a seat that Republican strategists once calculated would be theirs with ease.
Republicans needed a gain of 40 seats for a House majority. With polls still open on the West Coast, they had gained 34 and led for 27 more.
They picked up five Democratic-held seats in Pennsylvania, and three each in Ohio, Florida, and Virginia.
Democrats conceded nothing while they still had a chance. "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, and her own four-year tenure as the first female speaker in history seemed near an end.
With unemployment at 9.6 percent nationally, interviews with voters revealed an extraordinarily sour electorate, stressed financially and poorly disposed toward the president, the political parties and the federal government.
Sen.-elect Paul, appearing Tuesday night before supporters in Bowling Green, Ky., declared, "We've come to take our government back."
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. More than half expressed negative views about both political parties. Roughly 40 percent of voters considered themselves supporters of the conservative tea party movement. 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.
All 435 seats in the House were on the ballot, plus 37 in the Senate. An additional 37 governors' races gave Republicans ample opportunity for further gains halfway through Obama's term, although Andrew Cuomo was elected in New York for the office his father once held.
Republicans were certain of at least four Senate pickups, defeating veteran Sens. Russell Feingold in Wisconsin and Blanche Lincoln in Arkansas. In addition, North Dakota Gov. John Hoeven claimed a seat left vacant by retirement, and former Sen. Dan Coats easily won the Indiana seat he voluntarily gave up a dozen years ago.
But Democratic Gov. Joe Manchin won in West Virginia for the unexpired portion of the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd's term, and Attorney General Richard Blumenthal was victorious in Connecticut, dispatching Linda McMahon, former CEO of World Wrestling Entertainment.
A Republican takeover of the House would usher in a new era of divided government after two years in which Obama and fellow Democrats pushed through an economic stimulus bill, a landmark health care measure and legislation to rein in Wall Street after the near collapse of the economy in 2008.
Republicans opposed all three of the measures, accusing the president of supporting an ever-expanding role for the government with ever-rising spending.
Obama was at the White House as the returns mounted. He scheduled a news conference for Wednesday.
Paul's triumph in Kentucky completed an improbable rise for an eye surgeon making his first race. He drew opposition from the Republican Party establishment when he first launched his bid, then struggled to adjust to a statewide race with Attorney General 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. Democratic Rep. Kendrick Meek was running third.
But a third tea party-backed candidate, 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 overwhelmingly to Democrat Chris Coons in Delaware. Republicans had counted on taking the seat from the Democrats early this year, but that was before O'Donnell defeated veteran Rep. Mike Castle in a September primary. Democrat John Carney easily won the seat that was Castle's for nearly two decades.
Not all the Republican newcomers were party crashers.
In New Hampshire, Republican Kelly Ayotte won a Senate seat, defeating Democratic Rep. Paul Hodes. Former Bush administration official Rob Portman won a seat in Ohio, and Rep. Jerry Moran won in Kansas and Rep. Roy Blunt in Missouri.
Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont was re-elected to his seventh term and Barbara Mikulski her fifth. New York Sens. Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand also won, as did Sen. Ron Wyden in Oregon.
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, as were Republican Sens. Tom Coburn in Oklahoma, Richard Burr in North Carolina, John Thune in South Dakota, Johnny Isakson in Georgia and Mike Crapo in Idaho.
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 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.
A Republican victory there would 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.
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 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.