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Republicans land early victories in Kentucky, Indiana

Los Angeles Times

Republicans jumped off to a series of early victories Tuesday night, capturing a Democratic Senate seat in Indiana, while “tea party” favorite Rand Paul won his Senate election in Kentucky.

The Indiana victory was expected; former Sen. Dan Coats easily defeated Rep. Brad Ellsworth to win back the seat Coats had given up more than a decade ago.

But the win was an important step forward for the GOP, which seeks a net gain of 10 Senate seats in its drive to win a majority of the Senate.

Most observers and the latest polls show Republicans falling short of the 10 seats, but winning enough to be far more influential than in the past session.

The Kentucky victory by Paul, the son of libertarian-leaning icon Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, gives the tea party movement its first senator. Kentucky’s Paul won the Republican nomination in a primary against a GOP establishment favorite.

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In early returns, Republicans were ahead in three House races in Indiana. The GOP needs a net win of 39 seats to take a majority in the House and make John A. Boehner of Ohio speaker.

Thirty-seven governor’s seats are also at stake, and polls show Republicans winning at least half a dozen.

“It’s going to be tough,” Democratic National Committee Chairman Tim Kaine said earlier Tuesday on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” But Kaine was still hopeful that Democrats would prove the political pundits wrong.

Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, a former Democratic National Committee chairman, told CBS’ “Early Show” that the lesson Democrats would take from the election is “we’ve got to learn to explain and communicate what we’ve done and what we want to do a lot more clearly and a lot better than we have.” He said “expectations were unreasonably high for Barack Obama,” who faced “the worst set of problems, not of his own making, that any American president has faced in the last 50 years.”

Rendell said voters want lawmakers to tone down the partisanship. “The country’s got real problems, and they want real answers and not politics,” he said.

But Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana, chairman of the House Republican Conference, said in an appearance on CBS, “I don’t think today is going to be about the American people saying they want Washington to get more done.” Citing the economic stimulus and healthcare overhaul, he added, “I think there’s a lot they want to get undone in Washington, D.C.”

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, chairman of the Republican Governors Assn., told NBC’s “Today Show” that Republicans were “going to be cutting spending. ? They’re going to try to repeal and replace the healthcare reform bill. If they can’t repeal it, they’re going to try to change it so that you wouldn’t recognize it.”

Even with the predictions of Republican takeover of the House, Pence was taking nothing for granted.

“Anyone within the sound of my voice this morning who has heard about the ... tail wind that Republicans have behind them, to just banish that from their mind. They should get out and vote,” he said.

Still, Democrats held out hope that their vaunted get-out-the-vote operations would stem a GOP takeover; party operatives and volunteers were dispatched to contact millions of voters in the final hours before the polls opened. The Democratic National Committee said it would spend $66 million before the end of Tuesday on field efforts and advertising, logging more than 72 million voter contacts in the last six months.

Organizing for America, the group that grew out of Obama’s campaign, said it knocked on 1.3 million doors on Saturday alone. Unions also mobilized their troops on behalf of Democrats.

But such efforts did not go unanswered. The Republican National Committee said it reached out to 41 million voters, aided by a bumper crop of well-funded outside groups.

American Crossroads, a group co-founded by GOP strategist Karl Rove, armed 50 canvassers with iPads to help them locate targeted voters in Nevada, where Republican Sharron Angle was hoping to defeat Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. An additional 50 volunteers were dispatched to Colorado, and the organization spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to staff phone banks in Washington state. In all, it aimed to reach 10 million voters.

It remains to be seen how turnout will be affected by the bombardment of ads in the final weeks. This year’s TV ads were more negative than those in other recent elections, according to a new analysis by the Wesleyan Media Project. Since Sept. 1, 50% of Democratic television ads and 56% of Republican ads have attacked their opponents -- the highest level in a decade, according to the project, which is analyzing every campaign spot airing this year.

Some of the advertising flood is coming too late to matter: More than 16 million ballots already have been cast through early and absentee voting across the country, according to an estimate by George Mason University professor Michael McDonald. That’s the highest for any midterm election, though short of presidential-year totals.

Political experts also cautioned that much of the spending could amount to an oversaturation in some districts, blunting its effect.

But strategists on both sides agreed that this cycle’s massive campaign expenditures -- on track to total $4 billion -- widened the field of play, largely to the advantage of Republicans. Although the Democrats began the year with a financial edge, in part because of their incumbent status, third-party groups backing the GOP rushed to fill that void in the final two months, outspending pro-Democratic groups roughly 2 to 1.

“I suspect there are going to be a number of very close races, and in those kind of races, last-minute money can make a big difference,” said Democratic strategist Harold Ickes, who helped lead robust independent fund-raising campaigns in 2004 and believed Democrats need to launch stronger fund-raising initiatives for 2012. “My view is, I’m all in favor of small money. But when you’re in a fistfight, you need all the help you can get.”

Spending by outside groups was so potent in some districts, it exceeded Democratic fund-raising advantages built over two years of incumbency.

After raising $500,000 more than Republican challenger Mick Mulvaney, Rep. John M. Spratt Jr. of South Carolina could not keep up with the third-party money flowing into his district. Spratt had raised $1.8 million this election cycle, but outside groups spent nearly $2.2 million on attacks against the powerful House Budget Committee chairman. Spratt’s seat is now considered a tossup by the Cook Political Report, a respected political handicapper.

Efforts by Democrats’ allies picked up steam in the final weeks, and by the last lap, spending records were being broken across the country. In New York’s 20th Congressional District, Democratic Rep. Scott Murphy and his GOP opponent, Chris Gibson, had spent $11.4 million through mid-October, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. In Virginia’s mostly rural 5th District, the battle over Democratic Rep. Tom Perriello’s seat was headed toward $10 million, thanks to a flood of spending on both sides.

In Senate contests, Democratic candidates in the 11 most competitive races were bombarded with a combined $57.7 million worth of attacks from outside groups, compared to $46.5 million in attacks against Republican candidates.

Colorado and Pennsylvania remained the largest magnets for non-candidate spending. The four Senate candidates in those races have each fielded $10 million of attack ads launched against them by outside groups, according to tabulations by the Center for Responsive Politics.

matea.gold@latimes.com
tom.hamburger@latimes.com
kim.geiger@latimes.com
richard.simon@latimes.com

Kathleen Hennessey, Lisa Mascaro, Michael A. Memoli and James Oliphant of the Washington bureau and Times staff writers Michael Muskal in Los Angeles and Ashley Powers in Nevada contributed to this report.

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