WASHINGTON, D.C. — Voters were poised to head to the polls Tuesday in midterm elections that will test whether this year’s cascade of caustic political ads, fueled in part by an unprecedented deluge of outside spending, will help power a historic realignment of Congress.
After deftly co-opting President Barack Obama’s mantle of change, Republicans expressed confidence that an electorate weary of the country’s gloomy economy would hand them back control of the House and, perhaps, even the Senate. The GOP needs to win 39 seats to gain control of the House, a number that appeared easily within their reach as their allies dumped millions of dollars in the past week into some districts once thought to be safe for Democrats.
Still, Democrats held out hope that their vaunted get-out-the-vote operations would stem a GOP takeover, dis-patching party operatives and volunteers to personally 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 day Tuesday on field efforts and advertising, after logging more than 72 million voter contacts in the past six months.
Organizing for America, the group that grew out of Obama’s campaign, 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, as the Republican National Committee reached out to 41 million voters, aided by a bumper crop of well-funded outside groups.
In New Hampshire, Democratic Gov. John Lynch overcame an anti-incumbent groundswell and defeated Republican John Stephen to win a historic fourth consecutive two-year term as governor.
The 57-year-old Lynch faced one of his toughest re-election battles against Stephen, a former health and human services commissioner. Stephen tried to tap voter unrest by promising to cut state spending without raising taxes. He said Lynch’s mismanagement would leave a huge budget deficit for the next governor to fix.
Lynch said he could produce a balanced budget with spending cuts and a moderate growth in state revenues.
Advocacy groups spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on television ads attacking Lynch for signing a law last year legalizing gay marriage.
Libertarian John Babiarz also was on the ballot.
In Nevada, American Crossroads, a group co-founded by GOP strategist Karl Rove, armed 50 canvassers with iPads to help direct them to targeted voters in the Las Vegas suburbs, where Republican Sharron Angle was hoping to pull votes away from Democratic Sen. Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader. An additional 50 volunteers were dispatched to Colorado, and the organization spent hundreds of thousands to staff phone banks in Washington state. In all, it aimed to reach 10 million voters through mail and phone-banking.
Those efforts may begin to pay off at 6 a.m. EDT, when the first votes can be cast on the East Coast, and conclude 19 hours later, when polls close in Alaska. Weather isn’t expected to be a factor, with showers and storms forecast only in the Gulf Coast.
On Monday, political analyst Charlie Cook’s final prediction was that the GOP would gain a history-making 50 to 60 seats in the House, beating out its gains of 54 seats in the famed 1994 Republican revolution.
The landscape was not as grim for Democrats on the Senate side. Political observers expect the GOP to fall short of the 10 seats necessary to gain control of the upper chamber. Senate races in Pennsylvania and Kentucky are expected to be early indicators of GOP strength.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, who heads GOP Senate campaigns, offered his prediction in an NBC appearance: “I think we don’t get the majority back, but we come awfully close. And we finish the job in 2012.”
Several Senate contests may not be decided until very late Tuesday, or even later in the week, including those in Illinois, Colorado, Washington and the three-way race in Alaska. And many key races remained too close to call in several states, including Nevada, where first lady Michelle Obama rallied Monday for Reid.
There, she asked voters to be more patient and to send the president’s allies back to Washington. “My husband can’t do this alone,” she said.
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 sharply more negative than in other recent elections, according to a new analysis by the Wesleyan Media Project. Since Sept. 1, 50 percent of Democratic television ads and 56 percent 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 votes 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.