WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama's Democrats face a day of reckoning as US voters headed to the polls Tuesday in an election likely to see Republicans seize control of the House of Representatives and gain broad new powers to attack his agenda.
Democrats feared heavy losses as well in the Senate, but analysts forecast they would cling to a narrow majority, dividing power in Washington and setting the stage for a superheated political war ahead of Obama's 2012 reelection bid.
After a bitter year-long campaign shaped by voter anger at the sour economy, election day kicked off with eight eastern states opening their voting booths in the pre-dawn chill at 6:00 am (1000 GMT), and would wrap up after midnight (0400 GMT Wednesday) in remote Alaska and Hawaii.
By 7:00 am voting stations in several more locales were open, including the key populous states of Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Illinois, where polls show the Republican candidate with a slight lead in the race for Obama's old Senate seat.
Vote counting in some especially contested races are expected to take days, though experts forecast that there would be little doubt late Tuesday as to the overall winners and losers.
Bad weather was not expected to play a role in keeping voters away from the polls.
Republicans, energized by the ultra-conservative Tea Party movement, hoped their enthusiasm would carry them to victory -- much as a Democratic tide swept that party into power two years earlier.
Democrats hoped to stem the 2010 election onslaught and defy opinion surveys with an aggressive get-out-the-vote drive.
In an 11th-hour plea Monday, Obama warned that the vote "will have an impact for decades to come" and called upon demoralized Americans not to give up on his two-year-old campaign for change.
He warned that Republicans would bring back the policies he blamed for the 2008 economic meltdown that left nearly one in 10 Americans unemployed.
"The bottom line is this: We're making progress, we're moving in the right direction," the president said in a radio interview. "If the other side is more enthusiastic, we could end up having problems moving this country forward."
Obama's own soaring win of 2008 seemed an age away with all 435 House seats, 37 of 100 Senate slots, and 37 of 50 governorships up for grabs Tuesday.
"We're going to lose some ground, I'll be honest with you," Dick Durbin, the second highest ranking Democrat in the Senate, conceded on MSNBC late Monday.
The bleak mood was reflected in a telling quip by Obama's Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who suggested the president wouldn't mind changing locations with her.
"I spoke to President Obama... I think he was a little envious that I'm here," she told a television interviewer in Malaysia hours before polls opened.
Republicans vowed to reverse Obama's sweeping, signature health care overhaul and promised a budget crunch and tax cuts they said would slash the deficit, ignite growth and create jobs.
"We just can't afford another two years like the past two," Republican House Minority Leader John Boehner, who would all but certainly replace Democrat Nancy Pelosi as House speaker, said in an op-ed in Monday's USA Today.
Boehner has led top Republicans in vowing "no compromise" with the White House on key issues, and the party's leader in the Senate candidly declared last week that their number one goal would be to defeat Obama in 2012.
Obama has charged Republicans would hand power back to predatory health insurance companies and credit card and finance barons by repealing health care and Wall Street reforms that add up to an already full presidential legacy.
Polls and forecasters predicted Republicans will pick up anywhere between 45 and 70 seats in the House, more than the 39 they need to gain a majority, in a reversal of the huge losses they suffered in 2006 and 2008.
Control of the House would allow Republicans to thwart Obama's ambitious plans to tackle global warming and overhaul US immigration, and to control committees that could launch damaging probes into the administration.
Democrats worked desperately to deny Republicans the 10 new Senate seats needed to retake the chamber, battling in California, Colorado, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and over Obama's old Senate seat in Illinois.
"I think we don't get the majority back, but we've come awfully close, and we finish the job in 2012," Republican Senator John Cornyn, his party's Senate campaign field marshal, told NBC television.
The list of endangered Senate Democrats included Majority Leader Harry Reid, who was locked in a tight race with Republican and Tea Party favorite Sharron Angle in Nevada.
© AFP 2015