A Larger, Tougher Senate GOP

Although Republicans fell short of reaching the “magic 51” in terms of seats they needed to take control of the U.S. Senate, they nonetheless emerged from the Senate elections last night with enlarged ranks in the Senate.  More importantly, the class of new GOP senators elected last night are, with only one exception (Illinois’s moderate Sen.-elect Mark Kirk), stalwart conservatives with friendly–and in some cases close–ties to the “Tea Party” movement.

In terms of public policy, this means that there will be greater help for Sen. Jim DeMint (R.-S.C.) and other “front-line” foes of the Obama Administration on causes ranging from repealing the Democratic-passed health-care bill to stopping nominees for the judiciary. 

With races from Alaska, Colorado, and Washington State still to be decided, Republicans so far elected six new senators in contests for seats held by Democrats.  These are John Boozman (Ark.),  Kirk (Ill.), Dan Coats (Ind.), John Hoeven (ND), Pat Toomey (PA), and Ron Johnson (Wis.).  Boozman and Johnson ousted sitting Democratic senators, and Toomey won the seat of Sen. Arlen Specter, who had lost the Democratic primary to Rep. Joe Sestak earlier this year.  The other three all won contests in states where Democratic senators were retiring.

Republican numbers in the new Senate will be at least 47 out of 100 if the GOP holds on to the Alaska seat (where incumbent Republican Lisa Murkowski ran as a write-in candidate after losing the primary to conservative Joe Miller).  If GOPers Ken Buck of Colorado and Dino Rossi of Washington State emerge triumphant over Democratic Sens. Michael Bennet and Patty Murray, GOP ranks could go up to 49 in the new Senate. 

“Upgrades” for Conservatives

Also very significant are what conservatives are calling the “upgrades”—that is, replacing more middle-of-the-road Republican senators with fellow GOPers who were more conservatives.  The two most obvious cases of this were in Florida, where former House Speaker and tea party favorite Marco Rubio, won the three-candidate race for the seat of outgoing GOP Sen. George LeMieux and Utah, where attorney Mike Lee, who had campaigned unabashedly for abolishing government agencies such as the Department of Education, won the seat of the more moderate Sen. Robert Bennett (who lost renomination at the Republican state convention).

In Ohio and New Hampshire, the differences were not as defined between the outgoing and incoming Republican senators but the new solons from both states will almost certainly be more pleasing to conservatives.  Retiring Sen. George Voinovich occasionally irked the right with certain votes and actions (such as thwarting a full Senate vote on the nomination of UN Ambassador John Bolton).  His successor will be former Rep. and Office of Management and Budget Director Rob Portman, considered a reliable conservative vote and a leader in rolling back government spending.  Where New Hampshire’s retiring Sen. Judd Gregg and Sen.-elect Kelly Ayotte are both considered parts of the GOP “Establishment,” former state Attorney General Ayotte had much closer ties to conservative activists and had the pre-primary blessing of Sarah Palin. 

Two other retiring Republican senators, Sam Brownback (Kan.) and Christopher “Kit” Bond (Mo.) have Republican successors who are equally conservative (Reps. Jerry Moran and Roy Blunt respectively).

There were a few things for Democrats to cheer about.  Democratic candidates Chris Coons of Delaware and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut held on to the seats of retiring Democratic Sens. Ted Kaufman (appointed to replace Vice President Joe Biden last year) and Christopher Dodd respectively.  And West Virginia’s Gov. Joe Manchin retained the seat of the late Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WVA),  in spite of a spirited race by Republican businessman John Raese. 

And will we ever stop hearing about the triumph of Senate Democratic Leader (for now) Harry Reid over tea party-backed Republican Sharron Angle in Nevada? 

Overall, the new Republican numbers in the Senate and the new Members suggest that American voters last night gave the party a second chance after the disappointment that followed their last takeover of Congress in 1994 and led to their loss of a majority in 2006.  What they do with this “second chance” will be one of the defining political stories in 2011.