Americans vote in crucial Obama mid-term test

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After a long and bitter campaign, Americans cast their votes today (2 November) in elections that could sweep the Democrats from power in Congress and slam the brakes on President Barack Obama's legislative agenda.

Anxiety over the stumbling economy and discontent with Obama and government in Washington have propelled Republicans to the threshold of huge gains that could give them a majority in the House of Representatives and perhaps even the Senate.

Opinion polls and independent analysts project Republican gains of at least 50 House seats, far more than the 39 they need to take control and topple Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi from power.

Republicans are also expected to make big gains in the Senate, although it appears more difficult – but not impossible – for them to pick up the 10 seats they need for a majority.

Obama won office two years ago on a wave of hope he could lead the United States out of a deep economic crisis, but persistent high unemployment and a gaping budget deficit have turned many voters against him.

The public mood gave rise to the political phenomenon of the Tea Party, a conservative grassroots movement wary of Obama which backs less government, lower taxes and reduced spending.

Republican control of even one chamber of Congress would likely spark a long bout of legislative gridlock, weakening Obama's hand in fights over extending the Bush-era tax cuts and passing comprehensive climate change or immigration bills.

Republican candidates have pushed an agenda of spending cuts, deficit reduction and the repeal of at least portions of the healthcare overhaul, but Obama would wield veto power over Republican initiatives.

Polls open before dawn in some areas of the eastern United States and will start to close at 6 p.m. EDT (2200 GMT), but it will be hours before results are known in many crucial races.

All 435 House seats, 37 Senate seats and 37 state governorships are at stake in Tuesday's voting. Many states have been conducting early and mail-in voting for weeks.

Dozens of races are considered too close to call. Candidates in both parties launched a frenetic round of last-minute campaign stops and fundraising appeals on Monday.

Harry Reid in trouble

In perhaps the country's most high-profile race, Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid is embroiled in a neck-and-neck re-election fight with Republican Sharron Angle. Former President Bill Clinton campaigned in West Virginia for Democratic Senate candidate Joe Manchin.

Republicans need to string together wins in seven of eight tight races in California, Washington, Nevada, Wisconsin, Colorado, Pennsylvania, Illinois and West Virginia to win a Senate majority.

Obama, who hit four states over the weekend trying to pump up Democratic voter turnout, stayed out of public view in the White House on Monday. He conducted radio interviews and made get-out-the-vote phone calls to key battleground states.

In an interview with a radio show, Obama said he should have called his political foes "opponents" instead of "enemies" in a radio interview he gave last week.

Republican John Boehner, in line to become the next House speaker if his party takes control, condemned Obama at a campaign rally in Ohio for his use of the word "enemies."

"There's a word for people who have the audacity to speak up in defence of freedom, the Constitution and the values of limited government […] That word isn't enemies. It's patriots," Boehner said in Cincinnati.

Democrats mounted a huge get-out-the vote operation to ensure supporters made it to the polls. They were encouraged by their lead among early voters in some key states.

"The voters are going to surprise all of these Washington pollsters when they go out," Representative Chris Van Hollen, head of the Democratic House campaign committee, told CNN. "I think there's early evidence of that fact, especially in the early vote."

Democrats have battled a sour political climate all year, with voters in a foul mood over persistent high unemployment, a growing budget deficit and the perceived failures of government in Washington.

The climate put Democrats on the defensive in dozens of once-safe House and Senate seats, with the nonpartisan Cook Political Report estimating there are now more than 90 endangered Democratic-held House seats.

Tea Party-backed Republican candidates Ken Buck in Colorado, Joe Miller in Alaska and Angle in Nevada are threatening to knock off incumbents in tight Senate races, and Rand Paul in Kentucky has a big lead in opinion polls.

Republican Tea Party-favourite Christine O'Donnell in Delaware badly trails Democrat Chris Coons in the race for Vice President Joe Biden's old Senate seat.

(EURACTIV with Reuters.)

"People are basically not optimistic about the near future and they are going to take it out on the party in power, specifically the president and his administration," said Ipsos pollster Cliff Young.

An Ipsos survey revealed yesterday (1 November) showed that 50% of likely voters said they will choose a Republican candidate when they vote, while 44% said they will pick a Democrat.

"It's a bad environment for Democrats, but it's two years away from the general elections. You have to take that number with a grain of salt," said Young.

Young said Republicans are doing better this election cycle after suffering big losses in the 2006 and 2010 elections because they are perceived as better able to handle economic issues like jobs, taxes and deficit reduction.

"Republicans have been much more successful at shaping the economic narrative. The party has taken what was the 'Bush Economy' and refocused attention almost entirely on Obama's policies," said Julian Zelizer, professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University.

"Rather than the cause of the crisis, Republicans have people talking about the solutions to the crisis, what has worked and what hasn't worked. They have done so without offering many specific proposals of their own, which insulates them from attack," said Zelizer.

"The Republicans have just managed the PR campaign better," said Gary Segura, political science professor at Stanford University.

"The Obama political messaging machine, which was so effective during the '08 campaign, has been a disaster since they've been in the White House," Segura adds.

But Tobe Berkovitz, a professor of political communications at Boston University, expressed a different opinion. According to him, Obama's political future may rest more on the country's economic fortunes than anything he does to reshape his image or alter his style of governing.

"If people have jobs again, not many will care if he's the great communicator," Berkovitz said.

While President Barack Obama is not on the ballot, the midterm election is in many ways a referendum on his presidency, which is under pressure from voters unhappy with his handling of the weak economy and high unemployment.

Thousands of communities will elect mayors and city and county officials, judges, sheriffs and fill other local offices.

In many areas, voters will also voice their opinions on specific initiatives - from raising or cutting state and local taxes to California's question of whether marijuana should be legalised and taxed.

Here are the numbers:

US Congress

  • Senate - 37 of the seats are up for election, of which 19 are now held by Democrats and 18 by Republicans. In the 100-seat chamber, Democrats now control 59 seats to 41 for Republicans. Republicans are expected to gain seats but neither party is expected to win the 60 needed to stop the other from blocking legislation with the tactic known as a filibuster. One-third of the Senate is elected every two years for six-year terms.
  • House of Representatives - All 435 seats are up for election for two-year terms. Democrats now hold 255 seats to 178 for the Republicans, with two vacancies. Republicans look set to surpass the magic 218 seats needed to wrest the majority from Democrats. 

In both chambers, the majority party determines what and when legislation is brought to a vote and chairs all committees.

State governments

  • Governors - Elections in 37 states, of which 19 are now held by Democrats and 18 by Republicans. Only 13 governors are seeking re-election. Democrats are expected to wind up with fewer than their current 26 governorships to 24 for Republicans.
  • State legislatures - Variations in state election laws and state governments mean 46 states are holding elections for 88 of 99 state chambers. Democrats now hold an edge in state legislatures but Republicans are expected to make inroads.

Party control of governorships and state legislatures takes on national importance this year, when states get to redraw US congressional districts. The party in power can set boundaries to favour its candidates in elections for the next decade.

Other votes

  • Ballot measures - Local initiatives and referendum elections will be presented to voters in 36 states. Most concern changes in tax laws, bond issues, state budgets or government administration.
  • California's Proposition 19 would legalise marijuana for personal use and permit local governments to tax it. Several other states are considering changes in marijuana laws as well as rules on hunting, animal rights and liquor sales.

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