WASHINGTON — Emboldened by a commanding House majority and Senate gains, Republican leaders vowed Wednesday to deliver on their "golden opportunity" to roll back the size of government and President Barack Obama's signature health care law.
"Change course we will," said Ohio Rep. John Boehner, the speaker-in-waiting, describing Tuesday's midterm elections as a mandate to shrink the government. That echoed the unrelenting demand of the tea party activists whose energy and votes helped to fuel the largest turnover in the House in more than 70 years.
The capital awoke — if it ever slept — to a new political order, the largest House turnover in 70 years. With their lopsided win, Republicans are ushering in a new era of divided government and dethroning Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a prime target of their campaign.
"The American people spoke and I think it is pretty clear that the Obama-Pelosi agenda is being rejected by the American people," Boehner said.
Repealing the health care law, with its mandates and subsidies to extend health insurance to nearly all Americans, has been a Republican rallying cry for months but Obama, with his veto power, and the Democrats still in control of the Senate stand in the way. Several Republicans indicated their challenge to the law won't happen overnight when they take power.
"I think it is important for us to lay the groundwork before we begin to repeal this monstrosity," Boehner said. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who survived a tea party challenge in Nevada, said "I'm ready for some tweaking" on the health care law but would fight its repeal.
In the heady election aftermath, some Republicans cautioned their own that they have work to do in building public trust in a time when many Americans are fed up with both parties.
"We've been given a second chance and a golden opportunity," said Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, No. 2 Republican in the House. But, he added, "People want to see results." He called for discretionary spending to be cut to 2008 levels, including defense, and for a reduction in the federal payroll.
Sizing up the power shift, Reid said he wants to preserve Obama's sweeping health care law and let taxes rise on upper income Americans, but "I'm not bullheaded."
"If we need to work something out with the people who are really rich, I'll have to look at that," he said on CNN. "If there's some tweaking we need to do with the health care bill, I'm ready for some tweaking. But I'm not going to in any way denigrate the great work we did as a country, and saving America from bankruptcy because of the insurance industry bankrupting us."
Republican Rand Paul, who won a Kentucky Senate seat in a race powered by tea party support, said Americans need not fear gridlock in the next Congress because "debate is healthy."
"It seems like the most fiscally conservative government is always divided government," Paul said on NBC's "Today" show.
At the White House the morning after, senior Obama aides were staying silent so that Obama himself would have the first say, at a 1 p.m. EDT news conference.
Obama called Boehner to congratulate him late Tuesday. He also spoke with Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell and top Democrats in a series of conversations that reflected the shifting balance of power.
Incomplete returns showed the GOP picked up at least 60 House seats and led for four more, far in excess of what was needed for a majority. About two dozen races remained too close to call.
On their night of triumph, Republicans also gained at least six Senate seats, and tea party favorites Paul in Kentucky, Mike Lee in Utah and Marco Rubio in Florida were among their winners.
Not all the tea party insurgents won. Christine O'Donnell lost badly in Delaware, for a seat that Republican strategists once calculated would be theirs with ease until her stunning upset victory in the primary.
O'Donnell's campaign was hobbled by revelations about her background and personal finances but she squarely blamed the party for the size of her loss. "Republican cannibalism," she said Wednesday on CNN. "Had we united as a party from top all way down, we could have articulately gotten that message out. Instead there was infighting."
In Nevada, Reid dispatched Sharron Angle in an especially costly and contentious campaign in a year filled with them.
His win left three races still unresolved — in Colorado, Washington and Alaska, where Sen. Lisa Murkowski ran as a write-in candidate after losing the Republican nomination earlier this fall.
The GOP also wrested 10 governorships from the Democrats, Ohio and Pennsylvania among them, and gave two back, California and Hawaii.
In New York, Andrew Cuomo won the office his father, Mario, held for three terms. And in California, Jerry Brown was successful in his bid for a comeback to the governor's office he occupied for two terms more than a quarter-century ago.
The biggest win by far was the House, a victory made all the more remarkable given the drubbing Republicans absorbed at the hands of Democrats in the past two elections. Their comeback was aided by independents, who backed GOP candidates for the first time since 2004, by a margin of 55 percent to 39 percent. Women backed Democrats 49-48, after favoring them by a dozen points in recent elections.
The takeaways came in bunches — five Democratic-held seats each in Pennsylvania and Ohio and three in Florida and Virginia. Incumbents sent to defeat included three committee chairmen, Ike Skelton in Missouri, James Oberstar in Minnesota and John Spratt in South Carolina, as well as Paul Kanjorski of Pennsylvania, in Congress more than a quarter-century.
Republicans were certain of at least six Senate pickups, including the seat in Illinois that Obama resigned to become president. Rep. Mark Kirk won there, defeating Alexi Giannoulias.
Democratic Sens. Russell Feingold in Wisconsin and Blanche Lincoln in Arkansas were turned out of office. In addition, Republicans scored big in races for Democratic seats without incumbents on the ballot. Former Rep. Pat Toomey won a close race in Pennsylvania, North Dakota Gov. John Hoeven won easily there, and former Sen. Dan Coats breezed in a comeback attempt for the Indiana seat he voluntarily gave up a dozen years ago.22 comments on this story
Democrats averted deeper losses when Gov. Joe Manchin won in West Virginia — after pointedly distancing himself from Obama — 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. Sen. Barbara Boxer was elected to a fourth term in California, overcoming a challenge from Carly Fiorina.
The GOP gubernatorial gains came after a campaign in which their party organization spent more than $100 million, nearly double what Democrats had.
Among the incumbents who fell were Ted Strickland in Ohio, defeated by former Rep. John Kasich, and Chet Culver in Iowa, loser to former Gov. Terry Branstad.
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.