WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Republicans struck powerful first blows in U.S. congressional elections on Tuesday in their drive to control the U.S. 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 U.S. economy that is not growing broadly 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 the Senate races, Republican challenger Tom Cotton defeated Democratic incumbent Mark Pryor in Arkansas, television networks projected, despite frantic get-out-the-vote efforts by former President Bill Clinton, who hails from Arkansas.
Cotton’s win, along with a victory by Republican Shelley Moore Capito in West Virginia, gave Republicans two of the six seats they need to gain control of the Senate. Capito easily defeated Natalie Tennant to win a seat left open by retiring Democratic Senator Jay Rockefeller.
Republicans had been expected to pick up seats in the Senate, but polls ahead of the voting showed eight to 10 races are still toss-ups. If they do win a net gain of six seats they would control the 100-member chamber for the first time since the 2006 election.
In a key win for Democrats, Jeanne Shaheen won re-election in New Hampshire in what polls had forecast as a tight race, ABC projected.
A key barometer for Democrats was whether they would be able to hold North Carolina, where incumbent Democratic Senator Kay Hagan had an early lead in her closely fought battle 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, North Carolina, 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.
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