WASHINGTON - Republicans on Wednesday pointed to their House takeover as a mandate to "change course" on economic policy and key elements of President Obama's agenda, including the health care overhaul he pushed through Congress this year.
After wresting power from the Democrats in the biggest turnover in the House by either party since 1948, GOP leaders began sketching out legislative priorities and contemplating how they will implement their agenda in an era of divided government.
"Americans have sent an unmistakable message ... tonight, and that message is: Change course," said Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, who is poised to become the new speaker of the House.
Boehner acknowledged that his party's ability to set the nation's path will be limited with Democrats still in power in the Senate and the White House. "It's the president who sets the agenda for our government," he said.
Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., in line to take over as House majority leader, said the driving issue in his party's success was the economy. "Jobs first," he said in describing the GOP's priorities. Rolling back Obama's health care initiative also will be a goal, he said. "There's no question, last night indicated again that the majority of Americans want to see the repeal of Obamacare."
Tuesday night's voting gave Republicans at least 60 new House seats, and some races are still too close to call. It returned the House to Republican control for the first time since 2006, erasing the Democratic gains of the last two election cycles.
Several Democratic stalwarts fell, including three powerful committee chairmen: Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo., who chairs the Armed Services Committee; John Spratt, D-S.C., head of the Budget Committee; and Jim Oberstar, D-Minn., chairman of the Transportation Committee.
Other prominent Democrats to lose their seats included Texas Rep. Chet Edwards, a 20-year House veteran who oversees a military spending panel, and Virginia Rep. Rick Boucher, who lost his bid for a 15th term to Republican Morgan Griffith. Allen Boyd, a 14-year veteran representing a district in North Florida, also lost.
Heading into Tuesday's election, Republicans controlled 178 House seats, and needed to win 39 seats to take the majority. The GOP had won at least 60 seats by Wednesday morning, according to the Associated Press.
"This is a watershed election," said G. Terry Madonna, a political scientist and pollster at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa. "This is one of those transcendent moments in which we will be debating the future of government and its role in the economy for years to come."
Throughout the campaign, Republicans targeted Democratic incumbents for their votes on the $814 billion economic stimulus package and the sweeping health care law, which requires most Americans to have health insurance by 2014 or pay fines. Voter sentiment against Democrats was made worse by a 9.6% jobless rate - the country's highest unemployment rate in a midterm election since 1982.
Now that the House is in their control, Republicans face the complicated challenge of managing their majority, which was delivered partly on the victories of candidates from the anti-tax Tea Party movement, which took on the GOP orthodoxy.
"You're going to have the combination of (the) Tea Party still being in play, and certainly those members who are coming to Congress who grew up out of those grass roots are going to have a lot to say," Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele said on MSNBC.
Boehner said voters have a legitimate expectation that the GOP will use its new power effectively. "Frankly, whether you're Republican, Democrat or independent, the people of this country want to see results."
Outgoing Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was unapologetic in assessing the Republicans' victory: "The outcome of the election does not diminish the work we have done for the American people," she said. "We must all strive to find common ground to support the middle class, create jobs, reduce the deficit and move our nation forward."
Democrats did win some competitive seats Tuesday. Rep. Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., won a third term in his South Bend-area seat, despite a strong challenge from Republican Jackie Walorski, who was backed by Sarah Palin.
In Delaware, Democrat John Carney captured a seat long held by Republican Rep. Mike Castle, who retired to mount an unsuccessful bid for the U.S. Senate.
But election night belonged to the Republicans. Democrats faced an array of challenges.
Republicans took aim at 49 House districts where voters elected a Democrat to Congress in 2008 but supported John McCain, the GOP nominee for president. Heading into Tuesday's election, the non-partisan Cook Political Report rated 36 of those seats as tossups or favoring the Republican candidate. Democrats suffered losses on many of those seats.
Democrats had to defend a large number of first-term incumbents, many of whom held seats in highly competitive districts. Democrats, who took control of the House in 2006, widened their majority in 2008 and scored victories since in several special elections. Those gains had increased to 33 the number of Democratic freshmen in the House.
First-term Democrats who lost their seats included Virginia Reps. Glenn Nye and Tom Perriello, who lost his conservative district, despite an appearance by Obama in the final days of the election.
In typical elections, freshmen lawmakers see their share of voter support rise in their re-election bids, said Rhodes Cook, an independent political analyst. In this volatile year, many of those representatives faced the prospect of being "out on the street," he said.
Senior lawmakers suffered, as well. In addition to the defeats of prominent committee chairmen, the Democrats lost 13-term Rep. Paul Kanjorski of Pennsylvania, who was beaten by Lou Barletta, the Republican mayor of Hazleton, Pa., known for his tough stance on illegal immigration.
Traditionally, senior lawmakers have enjoyed an advantage partly for their ability to steer federal projects and spending to their home districts.
In a year marked by voter fury with Washington, "Bacon is now rotten pork," said Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University.
In many parts of the country, the election night battlefield covered familiar terrain for Republicans who targeted seats they lost in 2008. In a swing district that covers portions of Columbus, Ohio, Democratic Rep. Mary Jo Kilroy lost to Republican Steve Stivers, a former state lawmaker, in a repeat of their 2008 battle.
Democratic Party committees and their vulnerable incumbents entered the fall campaign with substantial fundraising advantages over their Republican counterparts. But a slew of outside groups affiliated with Republicans pumped millions into House races across the country, spurred by a Supreme Court decision in January that allowed corporations and unions to unleash millions on campaign ads.
The spending by outside groups with GOP ties helped Republican challengers narrow the spending gaps with Democrats.
Fredreka Schouten and Peter Eisler, USA TODAY