Republicans struck two powerful first blows in Kentucky and West Virginia in congressional elections on Tuesday in their drive to control the Senate and dramatically tip the balance of power away from President Barack Obama and his Democrats.
Obama's low job approval rating, partisan gridlock in Washington and a stagnant U.S. economy that is not strong enough to help many in the middle class were major issues confronting voters in elections for 36 senators, 36 state governors and all 435 members of the House of Representatives.
In Kentucky, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell won his sixth term, beating back a tough challenge from Democrat Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes.
And in West Virginia, Republican Shelly Moore Capito was projected to defeat Democrat Natalie Tennant to succeed retiring Democratic Sen. Jay Rockefeller, becoming the first woman to represent West Virginia in the U.S. Senate.
Capito's victory is the first Republican pick-up of the night and strengthens the party's chances to retake Senate control. The Republicans need six seats to retake the Senate.
In Kentucky, McConnell was projected as the winner by The Associated Press, CNN and Fox News.
CNN projected McConnell beating Grimes, 56 percent to 41 percent, within an hour after the polls closed in the Bluegrass State.
He pulled out ahead of Grimes early, at 61-37 percent, within minutes after the polls. Grimes never caught up.
While early voting returns showed Grimes scoring well in Louisville and other urban areas, she was never able to catch McConnell.
"We're seeing incredible turnout today," Grimes said on Twitter about 2:30 p.m., The Louisville Courier-Journal reports.
He voted late Tuesday at Bellarmine University in Louisville, while Grimes voted earlier in the day in her hometown of Lexington, the Courier-Journal reports.
In West Virginia, CNN projected Capito winning 59-38 percent over Tennant, also within a half-hour after the voting closed.
In other races, South Carolina's two Republican senators retained their seats, according to projections.
Sen. Lindsey Graham won a third term over Democrat Brad Hutto. And Sen. Tim Scott will finish the final two years of the Senate term of Jim DeMint, who stepped down to head the Heritage Foundation.
Republican Nikki Haley has won re-election as South Carolina governor, in a race that helps increase her national visibility. She defeated Democrat Vincent Sheheen after an acrimonious campaign.
If Republicans win the Senate on Tuesday, McConnell would replace Democrat Harry Reid as Senate majority leader, putting him in a powerful position on Capitol Hill.
Republicans are expected to pick up seats in the Senate, but polls ahead of the voting showed eight to 10 races are still toss-ups. They need to gain six seats to control the 100-member chamber for the first time since the 2006 election.
A key barometer for Democrats was whether they would be able to hold North Carolina, where incumbent Democratic Senator Kay Hagan was in a tough fight against Republican challenger Thom Tillis.
Obama, whose 40 percent approval rating made him unwelcome on the campaign trail for many fellow Democrats, cast the race as critical in a radio interview with Charlotte, N.C., station, the Artie and Fly Ty show.
"If we lose North Carolina then we lose the Senate. And if we lose the Senate then the Republicans are setting the agenda," Obama said.
Perhaps sensing a big Republican night, Obama seemed to be trying to limit Democratic expectations in an interview with Hartford, Conn., radio station WNPR.
"In this election cycle, this is probably the worst possible group of states for Democrats since Dwight Eisenhower," Obama said, referring to the 1950s Republican president.
Jay Carney, Obama's former spokesman, said he expects Obama to make an "all-out push" on his priorities regardless of the makeup of Congress.
"He's very competitive, and he will see it as a challenge, regardless of whether it's a split Congress or GOP-controlled Congress," Carney said in an interview.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the election was not a referendum on Obama's policies. "The vast majority of voters across the country are making decisions in this election based on the candidates themselves, and not on President Obama," he said, citing polling data.
Whatever the case, Obama will face pressure to make changes at the White House if his party loses the Senate. A Reuters/Ipsos poll showed 75 percent of respondents believe the administration needs to "rethink" how it approaches major issues facing the United States. Sixty-four percent said Obama should replace some of his senior staff after the election.
In Raleigh, North Carolina, Edward Sanders, 59, said the economy was his top issue. After voting for Hagan for the Senate in 2008, Sanders said he decided this time to go with her challenger, Tillis.
"I don't particularly like Tillis, but he seemed more likely to shake things up in Washington," said Sanders, a mechanical engineer.
Kyle Stephenson, 26, an accountant, said he recently switched parties from Republican to Democrat. He cited widening economic inequality as his key issue.
"It seems like the gap between the really rich and the rest of us is just getting bigger and bigger," he said. "It's gotten harder and harder for regular Americans to make a living."
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