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GOP'S VICTORY ALL PART OF PLAN

Focusing on economy and anti-Obama sentiment helped fuel election dominance.
Published Nov. 6, 2014
Updated Nov. 6, 2014

To understand the beating Democrats took on Tuesday, start with the obvious: The party that holds the White House historically loses ground in midterm elections. Off-presidential years also draw older, whiter voters. Advantage Republicans.

Add inthat President Barack Obama is widely unpopular. And look at the map. Some of the most competitive Senate races were in areas that favored the GOP.

"It's like Florida playing Alabama, Auburn and LSU all in a row. On the road," said Democratic pollster Tom Eldon.

But while those factors help explain how the GOP took the Senate and increased its hold on the House, they do not detract from blockbuster results. Republicans outperformed already high expectations and have momentum to build on going into the 2016 presidential election.

Now they have to show that voters made the right decision and break the Washington gridlock.

Here are some less visible signs of the Republican success:

- One of the first things Republicans did was address the blown opportunities of recent years. After staying out of primaries - in part over the blowback of embracing Charlie Crist so early in the 2010 U.S. Senate race won by Marco Rubio - GOP leaders aggressively weeded out more polarizing candidates.

It worked to elevate figures such as Thom Tillis, who defeated Democratic incumbent Sen. Kay Hagan in North Carolina, and Cory Gardner, who handed a defeat to Democratic Sen. Mark Udall of Colorado.

"It was risky and put (the establishment) at odds with many conservatives but it had to be done to win the majority," said Jennifer Duffy of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.

Republican candidates were remarkably disciplined, casting their opponents as reliable votes for Obama's policies, focusing on the economy, stumbles with the new health care law and rising threats abroad. The goal was to insert Obama into every race, and hundreds of millions of dollars in attack ads backed that up.

Voters were moved to send an anti-Obama message while Obama's coalition didn't have much to grab onto. "An unmotivated voter can't be motivated," Duffy said.

- The GOP also played catchup to the Democrats' vaunted digital data collection and outreach, a sophisticated effort to identify voters and maintain regular contact with them. The party spent millions and employed tools across the country that ensured their voters would turn out. The party also worked to build inroads with Hispanics.

- The economy was a dominant factor.

Nearly half of voters said they did not feel their financial standing had improved in the past two years and a fourth said it worsened. The latter group supported Republicans by a more than 2-to-1 margin, according to the Associated Press.

Eight of 10 voters were worried about the direction of the economy and most of them took it out on Obama and Democrats.

The pessimism stands in contrast to the positive economic indicators the White House has been touting for more than a year. Obama conceded Wednesday that his administration had not done a good enough job communicating the improvements. He also acknowledged the lack of enthusiasm from young voters, who so heartily bought into his vision in 2008 and returned again in 2012, along with minorities.

Those groups did not abandon Democrats on Tuesday but they did not come out in the same numbers, allowing the GOP to race ahead with older and white voters.

"Part of what I also think we've got to look at is that two-thirds of people who were eligible to vote just didn't vote," Obama said.

There was plenty of second-guessing Wednesday over the decision to keep Obama off the campaign trail.Obama stuck to a few safe Democratic states (such as Maryland, where the Democratic candidate for governor was beaten in a stunning upset), raised a lot of money behind closed doors and did less overt actions, such as a Miami radio ad he made for Crist's bid for governor. It was released at the last minute without notice from the campaign.

Had the president shown up in Colorado, a state he won in 2008 and 2012, could he have rallied younger voters?

That's possible, but Udall also made it clear he did not want to be associated with Obama. Alison Lundergan Grimes, the Democratic nominee for Senate in Kentucky, even refused to say whether she voted for Obama. She was pummeled by Sen. Mitch McConnell, who will become majority leader.

In places where Obama did go, he wasn't terribly helpful. He handed GOP ad makers a gold platter when he declared in a speech in Illinois that his policies were on the ballot.

Even as Republicans celebrated Wednesday, some cautioned that the party needs to show it can get things done.

"Republicans in Congress now have the opportunity - and the responsibility - to demonstrate to American voters that our party can effectively govern," said former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, one of a sizable crop of Republicans mulling a run for president.

The party has talked about tackling job growth policies, budget spending and taxes, and some are sure to call for changes to Obamacare - setting up a clash with the president, who retains veto power.

The Republican majority presents an opportunity for Rubio, too. Damaged with conservatives over his role in immigration reform, Sen. Rubio spent the past year delving into other policy areas, largely centered on the middle class. He can now pursue some of those ideas, giving him standing as he considers a run for president.

"I hope President Obama will listen carefully to the message the American people sent him in this election, and work with Congress to solve the pressing issues facing all Americans," Rubio said in a statement. (He was off to Colombia on Wednesday, adding to a foreign policy resume he surely would emphasize in a presidential run.)

But because GOP presidential primaries favor more conservative positions, Rubio could feel less inclined to seek compromise.

The power shift also affects Florida Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson. He was poised to take over the influential Commerce Committee but now will have to settle for being the ranking Democrat.

"Under Democratic leadership, the country has rebounded from a financial crisis that nearly put us in another depression," Nelson spokesman Dan McLaughin said in an email. "And, despite all the partisan criticism, the health care reforms are helping millions. But Democrats didn't get that message out. History shows that in midterm elections like this the party of the president doesn't usually do well. Still, Sen. Nelson is confident Democrats will bounce back and be ready in 2016."

Contact Alex Leary at aleary@tampabay.com. Follow @learyreports.