Republicans Just Broke Democrats' Blue Wall

But is it a onetime, Obama-driven surge—or a blueprint for more success in 2016?

This is what a Republican wave looks like.

The biggest story from the 2014 midterms was not just how Republicans reclaimed red states they lost in 2008—it's how they won seats in states that Democrats thought they had for their own. The GOP won most of the purple-state Senate battlegrounds, nearly sweeping the lineup of competitive blue-state governors' races, and picking up House seats in districts that seemed like Democratic locks.

Before the election began, the White House was preparing to spin away a solid Republican night by claiming that most of their victories came in conservative states. After all, the GOP needed only a red-state sweep to retake control of the Senate. But it soon became apparent that Republicans gains were much bigger and more widespread than even the most pessimistic Democrats expected. Even former Obama campaign manager David Axelrod, who dismissed the possibility of a GOP landslide early in the evening, had to tweet his contrition: "Said on @NBCNews earlier that this was not a wave. But the returns since then say otherwise."

The results weren't pretty for Democrats: They got swept in Iowa and Colorado, lost a North Carolina race they thought they would win, and are barely hanging on in Virginia—a race they didn't even think was competitive. Republicans held on to all their contested seats, with incoming Majority Leader Mitch McConnell winning by double digits in Kentucky. In sum, Democrats are staring at the likelihood of losing a net of nine Senate seats, a higher number than their worst-case projections.

And Republicans could pick up as many as five governorships, when most analysts expected them to lose several. Gov. Rick Scott, one of the least popular governors in the country, nonetheless prevails in Florida. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, the Democrats' biggest gubernatorial target, comfortably wins his third election in four years. Republicans clinch close governor's races in deep-blue Illinois, Massachusetts, and Maryland while running neck-and-neck in Colorado. Even Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, who looked like a goner before the election, hung on in a close race.

Meanwhile, House Republicans are positioned to add more than a dozen members to their already sizable caucus, which would give them the largest majority in generations.

Looking ahead, the big question is whether Republicans can keep their newly won footholds in a general election—and whether they can do it after Obama has left the scene. To be sure, Obama was the driving force behind this year's election results. But by demonstrating the party can attract voters beyond the most conservative of states, Republicans have given themselves an opportunity to improve their bruised brand in the run-up to the next presidential election.

The Senate results were clear enough in illustrating how Republicans expanded the map. Of the four targeted purple-state Senate races, Republicans picked up three, and in a fifth, came within a hair of ousting Sen. Mark Warner. In Colorado, GOP Sen.-elect Cory Gardner comfortably defeated Sen. Mark Udall, in part thanks to besting the GOP's traditional performance among Hispanic voters in the state. In Iowa, Republican Joni Ernst comfortably defeated Democrat Bruce Braley, winning by a 7-point margin in a state that Obama carried twice. In battleground North Carolina, the favorable Republican environment trumped the much-vaunted Democratic ground game, with Thom Tillis defeating Sen. Kay Hagan by 2 points.

In the House, Republicans have already clinched their largest House majority since the Truman administration and are within reach of expanding it even further. In 2010, a disproportionate share of their gains came in GOP-leaning districts held by Democrats. This year, most of their gains are coming from solidly Democratic seats that Obama easily carried two years ago. Rep. Dan Maffei, representing a Syracuse-based district that gave President Obama 57 percent of the vote, lost by 18 points to GOP lawyer John Katko. They elected two African-American Republicans, including one in a solidly Democratic south Texas district. Republicans picked up a seat on Long Island that Rep. Tim Bishop had held since 2002. Braley, who vacated his solidly Democratic House seat, saw Republican businessman Rod Blum achieve a narrow victory. Even Rep. Michael Grimm, who is under legal scrutiny, won a comfortable reelection on Staten Island.

The governorships provided the biggest surprises of the night, with Republicans nearly running the table, mostly in Democratic states. They entered the night holding 30 governorships, a high-water mark given that most were elected in the 2010 wave. They could end the night controlling as many as 35.

The biggest shocker of the night came when Republican Larry Hogan picked up the Maryland governorship, a sharp rebuke to Gov. Martin O'Malley's stewardship of the state and a sign that President Obama was unable to rally his base to the polls despite campaigning for Democrat Anthony Brown. But Republicans nearly ran the table in all the competitive contests, picking up Democratic-held governorships in Arkansas, Illinois, Maryland, and Massachusetts, while holding a lead in Colorado. In all these blue-state races, Republican candidates had to reach out to nontraditional voters for support, while their Democratic challenges had trouble expanding their appeal beyond the base.